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A tsunami-warning system makes waves

Big lessons can be learned from Wednesday's giant earthquake off Indonesia that led to an Indian Ocean-wide tsunami warning. The new system, set up since the big 2004 disaster, worked.


Indonesian women make phone calls as they evacuate a mall after a strong earthquake was felt in Medan, Sumatra, on Wednesday.

Binsar Bakkara/AP Photo

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To be forewarned is to be forearmed, wrote Cervantes, and that saying proved its worth Wednesday when countries around the Indian Ocean reacted well to a tsunami alert sent out after a magnitude-8.6 earthquake off Indonesia.

Memories were still fresh enough in the region from the devastating 2004 tsunami that many people evacuated quickly. While they can be grateful that the quake created only slightly higher than normal waves, they should also rejoice over a new tsunami-warning system in place since 2006.

It includes buoys in the ocean to measure water levels, sirens along coastal communities, and the latest telecommunication to send alerts. Also, tsunami shelters have been built that can hold hundreds of people. Escape routes are now better marked.

By early accounts, the system worked well, all the way from Thailand to Sri Lanka to Africa. Also helping was a higher number of cellphone users who spread the word to speedily head for higher ground.

Still, much needs to be done to build up tsunami-warning systems along all oceans and seas. Studies shows that prompt alerts save lives. In the United States, for instance, better warnings of hurricanes and tornadoes have led to more people taking shelter quickly or evacuating to avoid potential danger.

But even those systems need constant updates. Last week, for instance, the first government-backed alert system for mobile phones went live in the US. Called the Commercial Mobile Alert System, it sends out geographically specific emergency alerts – similar to text messages – to cellphones specially equipped to receive them. The alerts include imminent threats, Amber alerts, and emergency presidential messages.


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