Three minutes silence

It’s hard to disagree with this post on the popbitch messageboard:

this wasn’t a disaster; it was a disgrace. The Centre for Nuclear Testing Monitoring with over 300 sensors able to provide early warning of such an event? Unmanned due to Christmas. Officials not having holiday period phone numbers for relevant departments in the countries affected. The Australian official who only emailed Australian embassies with the warning because he didn’t want to “breach diplomatic protocol”. TEN YEARS of advice from geoligists to countries telling them not to build within 300 yds of the shorelines because this sort of thing WOULD happen. And then…. paedophiles stealing orphaned children. We are holding up a mirror to the human race in 2005 and it isn’t pretty.

The poster isn’t making this stuff up. The Times reports:

Even when the full enormity of the quake sank in, the scientists were at a loss to know what to do. It was a holiday weekend and they had no telephone numbers for the relevant authorities to contact in the countries thousands of miles away that faced devastation.

“We tried to do what we could,” said Charles McCreery, director of the Honolulu centre. “We don’t have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world.”

Other fatal slips were being made elsewhere. In Australia an automatic computer alert sent a seismology officer rushing to his office. Within 33 minutes of the quake he issued a warning of a tsunami — but sent it only to Australian embassies.

National officials in other countries were not warned, apparently for fear of breaching “diplomatic protocol”.

In India, the meteorological department dispatched a fax to warn a government minister — but sent it to the wrong person.

Perhaps the most sensitive equipment registering the earthquake was the network of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation which has its headquarters in Vienna. Using 300 monitoring points around the world, it gauges seismic activity, underwater disturbances and changes in the atmosphere.

It should have been well placed to judge the size of the quake and to warn countries around the Indian Ocean that a massive undersea disturbance had occurred.

However, the machines whirred on unmanned and unobserved; the staff were on holiday. Like so many other locals and tourists in countries around the Indian Ocean, they were oblivious to the terrible destruction now rippling out across the sea.

The Pakistan Daily Times says:

According to the scientific magazine Nature, the only seismological equipment in Indonesia capable of providing an early warning was on the island of Java. Installed in 1996, it had no telephone line following an office relocation in 2000. Officials in Jakarta were alerted to the earthquake, but the absence of data from the specialised Java station prevented them from issuing a warning.

According to Symonds, seismologists in Thailand registered the Sumatran earthquake soon after it took place. Thai Meteorological Department officials convened an emergency meeting at which the danger of a tsunami was discussed, but the gathering decided not to issue a warning. With no tidal and other sensors in place, the meteorologists had no means of confirming whether a tsunami was on its way. Moreover, they knew there would be repercussions from both government and business if they issued a false warning. A major consideration was the peak tourist season and hotels running at full capacity.

We live in a world of global, instant communication, yet people died because sensors weren’t being watched and because messages weren’t clear, weren’t sent to the right people, weren’t taken seriously enough or couldn’t be sent at all.