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Indonesia struggles to prepare amid warnings of second tsunami

Indonesia struggles to prepare amid warnings of second tsunami

Two years ago, a monster earthquake off western Indonesia spawned a tsunami that killed or left missing some 230,000 people in Asia and horrified the world. Now, scientists say the same fault that hatched the quake is due to rupture again - and this town stands to take the full force of the waves.
Researchers expect the quake to hit within 30 years and predict a large swathe of Sumatra island's densely populated coastline just south of the area devastated in 2004 will be washed away.
"All this area in red will disappear," said Padang Mayor Fauzi Bahar, pointing at a satellite map on his office wall showing the likely reach of the waves into the town. He and other officials have started mapping out evacuation routes and educating the public on the threat.
But even with the preparations, authorities fear up to 60,000 people could die in the low-lying town of 900,000, unable to outrun the oncoming waves even if they are warned or flee as soon as the ground stops shaking.
"The people will be washed away," Bahar said.
On the morning of December 26, 2004, the most powerful earthquake in four decades lifted up the seabed west of Sumatra by several meters, propelling waves at jetliner speeds across the Indian Ocean that reared as high as two-story buildings before smashing into coastal communities, beach resorts and towns in 12 nations.
In hardest-hit Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, the waves surged kilometers (miles) inland, tossing ships, swallowing entire villages and leaving behind a blasted landscape of cement foundations and rubble littered with tens of thousands of bodies.
On Sumatra island - home to more than half the victims - volunteers and emergency workers took three months to recover all the corpses, which were dumped into mass graves with mechanical diggers.
Tsunami fears
Warnings of another tsunami-spawning quake are adding urgency to efforts to establish a warning system covering the Indian Ocean rim similar to the network of high-tech buoys in the Pacific that alerts Japan, the United States and other nations to sudden tidal changes.
The worst-affected countries have begun installing sirens on threatened coastlines and three buoys with sensors capable of detecting waves generated by seismic activity are in the water, but the network is several years from completion, officials say.
Making sure the system works from end-to-end is a "daunting task," said Curt Barrett, from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is helping set it up.
"Once the warning goes out, people have to know what to do," he said. "All of these people at the community level, that's where it really has to work. All of this information is useless if it doesn't get to the person down on the beach."
The warnings of another tsunami are based on more than a decade of research by respected U.S geologist Kerry Sieh and a team of scientists studying a section of the fault that ruptured so catastrophically in 2004.
His conclusions are shared by scientists at other universities and government institutions.
The fault, which runs the length of the west coast of Sumatra about 200 kilometers (125 miles) offshore, is the meeting point of the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates that have been pushing against each other for millions of years, causing huge stresses to build up.
Using historic accounts of earlier quakes, measurements of coral uplift and data from a network of Global Positioning System transmitters on nearby islands, Sieh has found a pattern of large earthquakes about every 230 years, with the last major jolts in 1797 and in 1833.
The 2004 jolt, as well as another strong quake on the same fault three months later that killed 1,000 people on nearby Nias island, has loaded it still further, says Sieh, who is from the California Institute of Technology.
"We are not saying the quake is going to happen tomorrow or next week, but on the other hand we don't want people to forget about it and be lax," he said, predicting it would come within the next three decades. "It is a virtual certainty."
A small non-governmental agency funded by foreign donors is spreading the message in Padang and surrounding districts. The group has met with hundreds of village heads and religious leaders, and sends volunteers to schools along the threatened coast with a simple warning.
"If the quake lasts longer than a minute, knocks you to your feet or collapses buildings, run to the nearest hills," volunteer Riska told a class recently.
"If you can't make it, then climb a tree. Start learning now," she said, her voice hoarse from trying to maintain the giggling children's attention.
The group says that residents and government officials are receptive to their message, especially since a second tsunami on Indonesia's main island of Java in July this year killed 600 people.
Coastal residents have complained that land prices have fallen, a sign that people are moving to safer areas inland.
Australian Chris Scurrah and his wife manage a small hotel in the town's seaside colonial quarter and run a thriving business organizing surfing trips. After five good years, they have no plans to leave.
"It's an awesome place to be, but it's just scary to think it's going to get smashed," Scurrah said before setting out with a boatload of surfers. "That's just the way it works here."


Updated : 2021-06-23 06:21 GMT+08:00