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Tsunami warning: This time, the system mostly worked

Tsunami warning sirens sounded around the Indian Ocean region after an 8.6 earthquake hit yesterday. During the 2004 tsunami, few warning systems were in place. 

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People walk through debris from Wednesday's strong earthquake at an office building in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Sumatra island, Indonesia, Thursday, April 12. Despite a tsunami warning, no damage occurred from tsunamis following the earthquake.

Heri Juanda/AP

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It was not like December 2004. Sirens wailed, warnings blared, and police moved millions of people away from coastlines around the Indian Ocean as Wednesday's 8.6 magnitude earthquake off northern Indonesia sparked fears of another devastating tsunami.

Damage was light - the quakes were horizontal rather than vertical - and the big waves never came, unlike eight years ago when walls of water roared across the same ocean and ploughed into seaside communities in 13 countries without warning.

"The reports were of people panicking but there was little damage. We need to check for sure," Eko Budiman, deputy head of the emergency mitigation agency, said at Medan airport in Sumatra, struggling to reach Simeulu island near the epicentre.

Five people died in northern Indonesia, at least two from heart attacks, the agency said.

The alerts and evacuations mean a regional system passed a major test since the tsunami of 2004 that killed 230,000 people, including 170,000 in northern Indonesia alone.

But luck helped avert disaster this time as much as the warning system, especially in Indonesia's Aceh province, where roads were jammed with residents trying to flee and damaged power lines silenced the sirens.

"The simple message is that in any critical condition like this it's impossible to get everyone out in time," said Keith Loveard, chief risk analyst at Jakarta-based security firm Concord Consulting.

"The tsunami alert system worked to a degree.... While awareness has improved, reinforced by 2004, it still needs to get better through public education and government campaigns."

The scenes in Banda Aceh showed the roads are just not big enough, he said, pointing to the need to build up infrastructure and "put cities in a different place."

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