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Did Tsunami Warning Reach Samoa On Time?

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Now news of two powerful earthquakes thousands of miles apart. Earlier today, a magnitude 7.6 quake struck western Indonesia. Hardest hit appears to be the city of Padang on the island of Sumatra. The earthquake toppled buildings, including two hospitals, and killed between 100 and 200 people. That number is expected to rise. The quake occurred along the same fault line that triggered the devastating tsunami in 2004.

SIEGEL: The other quake, a magnitude 8.0, occurred yesterday in the South Pacific not far from Samoa and American Samoa. It created a series of 15 to 20 foot tsunami waves wiping out villages. More than 100 people have died there and dozens more are missing.

BLOCK: A tsunami warning was issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center based in Hawaii and Charles McCreery is director there. Welcome to the program.

CHARLES MCCREERY: Thank you.

BLOCK: And did that warning actually reach people in time?

MCCREERY: There would've been natural warning signs, however, and there have been efforts made to try and do some education in that area so people know that if they feel the strong shaking, that's a natural warning sign of the tsunami.

BLOCK: Don't wait for a bulletin and head for higher ground.

MCCREERY: Exactly. And that's really the strategy that has to be adopted in all places that have a threat of a local tsunami, is don't wait for an official warning. Because even if one is issued, if you're in the area where the strong shaking occurred, the infrastructure to carry that warning to you may have been damaged, so you can't count on an official warning.

BLOCK: When your center, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, sends out a bulletin to countries, they get that, and then how do they try to transmit that information to the people? Are there sirens? Is it text messages, radio messages? How does it work?

MCCREERY: It can vary from place to place. Sirens are pretty expensive, so in a lot of countries they can't afford to have a siren system. But they can use alternate methods. In Indonesia, for example, it can go through the mosques. Most mosques have some kind of system that they broadcast their daily prayer in and so those kinds of systems be used. In the country of Samoa, for example, they contact the local chiefs, school teachers in the village and that's how the alert gets out. So it's a bit of a creative thinking that has to go on - is what's the best way for each place?

BLOCK: You know, thinking back to 2004 and the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean where more than 200,000 people were killed, there was a lot of talk about a better warning system. There wasn't one in place in the Indian Ocean at that time. Where are we right now with that?

MCCREERY: In 2004 we only had six of the deep ocean gauges in the Pacific and now we have 32, and we used several of those yesterday. The biggest challenge to tsunami warning remains, really, keeping people aware of and knowledgeable about this hazard so that when they strike, people do the right thing. And as you can imagine, when it's 50 years or 100 years between events, everybody in the whole system, including people at the warning centers, all the emergency managers, it will be the first time they ever deal with this and probably the only time in their life they ever deal with it. Yet they have to do the right thing in a very short amount of time.

BLOCK: Charles McCreery, thanks very much.

MCCREERY: Thank you.

BLOCK: Charles McCreery is director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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