It doesn’t look much like an escape route yet. The path between two plots of property on Indonesia’s tsunami-wrecked coastline is strewn with smashed masonry and is blocked by a pond.
The planned escape route in the Indonesian town of Banda Aceh represents the low-tech end of a sophisticated network of seismic monitoring, satellite communications and underwater sensors that is meant to give early warning in case of another tsunami.
But it still exists only on paper, pointing to the slow pace of progress in some areas in the year since the Dec. 26 quake and tsunami left 216,000 dead and missing around the Indian Ocean rim.
Still, it’s at least a start – part of a network of “safe houses” and escape routes to higher land which have been mapped out for Banda Aceh and the surrounding Deah Glumpang district.
“We don’t have a full system yet, but if there’s an earthquake, we’ll be ready to go,” said Rusmaizar, head of redevelopment in the area, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.
Since last year’s disaster, the region has made strides toward implementing a system similar to the one centred in Hawaii that covers the Pacific Ocean.
Thailand and India have set up tsunami warning centres to field information, and Australia also plans one. Seismic monitoring stations have been overhauled with new computers and communications equipment to quickly measure the strength of underwater quakes and assess the tsunami threat.
A system is being installed by German and local scientists along Indonesia’s Sumatra coast. Sensors on the ocean floor and giant buoys on its surface will be able to notify coastal observation stations within 10 minutes of a tsunami-strength earthquake.
Salvano Briceno, director of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, said the aim is to announce the inauguration of the regional network in July. It’s expected to cost between $30 million and $40 million US.
“A major challenge is to have all the donor and technical agencies, all the organizations working on this subject, to work on a common process . . . to get everybody on the same track,” Briceno said by phone from Geneva, Switzerland.
The concept is simple: tsunamis are often whipped up by underwater earthquakes, meaning authorities using seismic data can in many instances warn communities of the approaching waves hours in advance.
Sumatra island was so close to the epicentre of the Dec. 26 quake that an early-warning system would have been of limited use. But more distant victims in Sri Lanka and Thailand could have reached higher land had they known the water was coming.
Instead, opportunities were lost. The U.S.-run warning centre in Hawaii picked up the quake but didn’t have the phone numbers of appropriate officials in Asia. The Indian air force mistakenly faxed a report of the quake to the home of the former science and technology minister.
In the new network, quake-measurers would send data via satellite to central hubs for analysis. Tsunami warnings would go out to centres monitoring ocean-floor sensors and other wave-watching equipment. Massive underwater quakes would warrant immediate alerts to coastal areas over TV, radio and sirens.
Much of the attention has focused on the high-tech hardware. But experts say it will only work if information reaches coastal communities quickly and people are trained to respond.
“Every link in the chain needs to be there for it to work,” said Imogen Wall, a UN Development Program worker working with Rusmaizar and others.
Indonesia’s experience illustrates how weak some of the links can be.
The Mata Ie Geophysical Station in the hills above Banda Aceh now has new computers and other equipment. In the year since Dec. 26, the outpost has recorded some 300 earthquakes strong enough to be felt by humans.
The station chief, Syahnan, said he now can send readings much more quickly to Jakarta for authorities to analyze and measure a quake’s magnitude.
But the trail largely ends there, Syahnan said. His station will give out information to police and others who call, but he has no set method for distributing data to coastal areas.
“There’s no one unit for disaster response. I think one disaster information centre is really needed here,” he said.
Getting word to isolated villages is a major challenge. Cell phones can help only if their network survives the quake. Some officials have suggested distributing VHF radios in vulnerable areas for use in spreading the word.
Experts say schools and religious institutions also need to be in the loop, educating people about dangers, sheltering them and communicating information.
In heavily Muslim Aceh province, many mention the idea of broadcasting warnings over the mosque loudspeakers that summon the faithful to prayer.
Azman Ismail, the top imam at Masjid Raya Baiturrahman, Banda Aceh’s largest mosque, says he’s willing, but that government officials mentioned the idea to him only briefly in February and haven’t gotten back to him.
Besides, he worries about false alarms. “I don’t want to tell citizens about a tsunami unless we’re sure it’s coming,” he said. “Otherwise, we’d just be making people panicked.”
Meanwhile, the 150 people of Deah Glumpang – all that are left from the pre-tsunami population of 2,000 – have worked with two other villages to map out routes running several kilometres inland to an area that largely escaped the waves.
If disaster looms before the warning system is in place, low-tech still may save lives, says Rusmaizar, the development chief.
“Based on our experience, if there’s a tsunami, the water level goes down at first,” he said. “That would be a sign that we should run away.”