Detik-detiksaat tsunami menerjangPantaiPalupada 28/9/2018 sore pascagempa 7,7 SR mengguncangDonggala. Tinggi tsunami sekitar 3 meter. Permukiman di sekitarpantaihancurdisapu tsunami. pic.twitter.com/GnxecozDKk— SutopoPurwoNugroho (@Sutopo_PN) September 28, 2018
A 7.4 magnitude earthquake struck the Indonesian island of Sulawesi last week followed by a devastating 18-foot tsunami that washed over the entire neighborhoods, leaving behind dirt and debris where there was once buildings and bridges.
Subsequently, the Indonesian authorities scrambled to bury some of the at least 832 dead, while the government said it would accept international help for disaster relief.
Most of the confirmed deaths were in Palu, a city of 379,000 people, where authorities were preparing a mass grave to bury some of the dead as soon as they were identified.
However, according to the Indonesia’s disaster agency, certain amount of damage and deaths could have prevented if an early warning system had worked and provided a much-needed heads up about the upcoming disaster.
After a 2004 tsunami killed hundreds of thousands of people in a dozen countries – more than half of them in the Indonesian province of Aceh, a concentrated international effort was launched by a team of U.S. and Indonesian institutions to develop a detection system that they believed provided more warning time than other systems in place.
Part of that plan was the deployment of a network of 22 buoys to seafloor sensors to transmit advance tsunami warnings to the Indonesian meteorology and geophysics agency (BMKG).
However, turns out, the detection buoys had not worked since 2012, according to the spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB).
"If we look at the funding, it has decreased every year," the spokesman told Indonesian media at a press conference.
Apart from the lack of funding, internal politics and delays in accumulating $92,867 to complete the project meant the much-needed system hasn't progressed beyond a prototype.
The insufficient warning before rising waters reached the shore highlights the inefficiency of the system, which failed to adequately guide the public on how to respond to such a massive catastrophe.
“To me this is a tragedy for science, even more so a tragedy for the Indonesian people as the residents of Sulawesi are discovering right now,” said Louise Comfort, a University of Pittsburgh expert in disaster management who has led the U.S. side of the project. “It’s a heartbreak to watch when there is a well-designed sensor network that could provide critical information.”
"The tide gauges are operating, but they are limited in providing any advance warning. None of the 22 buoys are functioning. In the Sulawesi incident, BMKG (the meteorology and geophysics agency) canceled the tsunami warning too soon, because it did not have data from Palu. This is the data the tsunami detection system could provide," Comfort added.
On the other hand, Adam Switzer, a tsunami expert at the Earth Observatory of Singapore, said it’s a “little unfair” to entirely blame the agency.
“What it shows is that the tsunami models we have now are too simplistic,” he said. “They don’t take into account multiple events, multiple quakes within a short period of time. They don’t take into account submarine landslides.”
What’s even more disturbing, it’s not the first time the detection buoys were found to be not working.
In 2016, a strong earthquake struck the coast of southern Sumatra in Indonesia and caused a havoc in the coastal city of Padang. Later, it was revealed none of the buoys — each costing hundreds of thousands of dollars — were working.
It was discovered they either weren’t functional due to lack of funds for maintenance or had been disabled by vandalism and theft.
According to an expert at the Institute of Technology in Bandung, Harkunti P. Rahayu, the power outages following the earthquake also affected the warning system, which is why the sirens failed to warn the residents to evacuate their homes.
"Most people were shocked by the earthquake and did not pay any thought that a tsunami will come," Rahayu explained.
The fact that people were still roaming around Palu’s shoreline when waves were visibly approaching shows the lessons of earlier disasters haven’t been absorbed and the authorities are apparently just making matters worse.
Banner Image Credits: Antara Foto/Muhammad Adimaja via REUTERS