By Susan Shand
01 October, 2018

Indonesia is recovering from a powerful earthquake and huge ocean waves that struck the island of Sulawesi on Friday. More than 800 people are reported dead.

Some experts are wondering whether a new warning system could have saved many lives if it had been available.

Indonesia has been developing a new tsunami warning system with the help of American experts for many years. However, the Associated Press reported that it was not available for use because of delays and disputes.

The AP reported that fighting at government agencies and delays in finding $69,000 needed to finish the project stopped the system from warning the public. The system is still a prototype and was developed with $3 million from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Indonesia Earthquake Aftermath
Indonesia Earthquake Aftermath

The magnitude 7.5 earthquake caused waves of up to six meters in height. The deaths show the weakness of the old system and the lack of public knowledge about what to do if such an event happens.

"To me this is a tragedy for science, even more so a tragedy for the Indonesian people," said Louise Comfort. She is a disasters expert at the University of Pittsburgh. She has led American efforts to develop the project. Engineers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the American state of Massachusetts and Indonesian scientists and disaster experts also took part.

Comfort said it is difficult to think about the large number of deaths that could have been prevented.

In 2004, a huge tsunami killed an estimated 230,000 people in 12 countries. More than half of those killed lived in the Indonesian province of Aceh.

After the 2004 tsunami, an international effort was launched to improve tsunami warning systems. That effort was mostly in the Indian Ocean area and Indonesia.

The effort included setting up 22 buoys connected to sensors at the bottom of the sea. The sensors could send warnings before a tsunami hits land.

However, a large earthquake off the island of Sumatra in 2016 demonstrated that none of the buoys were working. Each of the devices cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Indonesia's current tsunami warning system uses stations that measure sea water height and seismographs. People are warned with sirens and text messages.

After Friday's earthquake, the government sent a tsunami alert that warned of possible waves of 0.5 to three meters. The government ended the warning at 6:36 p.m. local time. The government said the warning ended after the tsunami hit. It is not clear what time tsunami waves struck the Sulawesi city of Palu.

The old system was working, but it has limited effectiveness, Comfort said. She said the government ended the warnings too soon because it did not have any information from Palu.

Adam Switzer is a tsunami expert at the Earth Observatory of Singapore. He said criticizing the government is a "little unfair."

"What it shows is that the tsunami models we have now are too simplistic," he said. He added that models cannot measure more than one event, such as many earthquakes at the same time.

Harkunti P. Rahayu is an expert at the Institute of Technology in Bandung. She said the loss of electricity after the earthquake meant that tsunami warning signals did not work.

The proposed system would use sensors on the sea floor, sound waves and fiber-optic cable to replace the old one.

It also would provide a warning within one to three minutes—much faster than the older system, experts said.

However, the new system needs just a few more kilometers of fiber-optic cable to connect it to a station on an island. From that island, information would be sent to the government agency overseeing warnings and to disaster officials.

The AP first reported on the new system in January 2017. At the time, the project was waiting for Indonesia to provide money for the cables. Since then, there have been budget cuts. And the project has moved from one government agency to another.

Those agencies fought over power and responsibility until the project stopped, Comfort said.

Indonesian officials who have been supportive of the new early warning system did not immediately answer requests for comment.

Since the 2004 tsunami, some disaster officials in Indonesia have resisted a new warning system. They say the earthquake itself is the tsunami warning. After an earthquake, everyone should go to higher areas, the officials say.

Gavin Sullivan is a disaster expert who works for the Indonesian city of Bandung. He noted that, during Friday's tsunami, people were on the coast watching the wave move toward them. That shows that education efforts about staying safe during a tsunami event have failed.

I'm Ashley Thompson.

I'm Caty Weaver.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. The editor was Mario Ritter.

Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.

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Words in This Story

tsunami– n. a very high, large wave in the ocean that is usually caused by an earthquake under the sea and that can cause great destruction when it reaches land

sensor– n.a device that detects or senses heat, light, sound, motion, etc.

fiber-optic cable – n.a wire made of glass than can carry information very quickly

prototype– n. an original or first model of something from which other forms are copied or developed

buoy– n.an object that floats on water in a lake, bay, river, etc., to show areas that are safe or dangerous for boats

seismograph– n.an object that floats on water in a lake, bay, river, etc., to show areas that are safe or dangerous for boats

sirens –n. a piece of equipment that produces a loud, high-pitched warning sound