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Sumatra quake exposes gaps in tsunami warning systems

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Warning buoys put in place after 2004 disaster were found to be broken and vandalised

All 22 of the early warning buoys in Indonesia that were deployed after the 2004 tsunami disaster were inoperable when a massive undersea earthquake struck off Sumatra's west coast on Wednesday, a national disaster mitigation agency said.

The 7.8 quake did not trigger a tsunami, and there were no deaths and no major damage.

But it did expose gaps in the systems that had been put in place to prevent a disaster similar to the Indian Ocean quake that killed more than 200,000 people 11 years ago.

In addition to the malfunctioning of buoys designed to warn of massive waves, authorities said there were not enough evacuation routes or shelters in Padang, a port city of around one million people that felt the quake.

"There was definitely panic last night, that cannot be denied," said Mr Zulfiatno, the head of disaster management agency in Padang.

He also added that the shelters had a capacity of only around 200,000 people.

"But the situation has improved from previous years. People have started to understand how to evacuate safely."

Soon after the 2004 disaster, Indonesia introduced a sophisticated early warning system using buoys, sea-level gauges and seismometers that can send alerts to countries' tsunami warning centres within 10 minutes of a quake.

Officials said the procedure is to issue a tsunami warning if a quake - with a magnitude of more than 6.5 and an epicentre less than 20km deep - happens at sea, and that went smoothly on Wednesday.

But the buoys, which measure the force and speed of water movement, were a missing link in the chain, Reuters reported.


Authorities delayed the lifting of their tsunami warning because of the inoperable buoys, which cost around US$2.3 million (S$3.2 million) a year to maintain.

"We can easily forget. After the quake in Aceh, we wanted to do everything, but by last year we didn't have money allocated (to fix the buoys)," Mr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, told reporters.

"Most of (the buoys) were broken by vandalism."

Although there were some strong aftershocks yesterday, life in Padang had largely resumed to normal by daybreak.

Meanwhile, a ship carrying military personnel and search and rescue officials was dispatched yesterday to Tuapejat in the Mentawai Islands, off Sumatra's west coast, to check on isolated communities. The islands were the closest land to the quake's epicentre, AFP reported.

Phone contact had not been properly established with Tuapejat since the quake, the national search and rescue agency said.

But it added that this was not unusual in the remote islands.

"The team will head there to check the situation," the agency said, adding that residents were still believed to be sheltering in the hills.

The Mentawai Islands are poor and isolated but they are a popular destination with some intrepid foreign tourists, particularly surfers.

The small archipelago is regularly hit by quakes, and hundreds were killed in the islands by a tsunami in 2010.

indonesiaNatural DisasterearthquakeUncategorisedearly warning systembuaysVandalism