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Asia tsunami warning system feasible

Major obstacles are not money and technology, but poverty and political, experts and officials say. USGS: Warnings could have saved thousands

The major obstacles to creating an early-warning system that could have saved many victims of Asia's massive tsunami are not money and technology, but poverty and political and cultural division besetting the region it hit, experts and officials said Monday.

The wall of water that killed more than 23,300 people in coastal villages in Indonesia, Thailand, India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka was tracked by U.S. seismologists who said they had no way to warn local governments of the danger.

The tsunami was spawned by the most powerful earthquake in 40 years, which struck off the Indonesian coast an hour before the tsunami made landfall on Sunday. U.S. officials tried frantically to warn the deadly wall of water was coming, but there was no official alert system in the region.

Six "tsunameters" along the Pacific coastline, one near Chile and 14 off the Japanese coast now feed data to the U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Centers in Hawaii and Alaska.

Scientists wanted to place two more of the tsunami meters in the Indian Ocean, including one near Indonesia, as part of a global warning system, but the plan has not been funded, said Eddie Bernard, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

The tsunameters each cost $250,000 and take about a month to build, Bernard said. "It has been vetted through a (United Nations commission) and they support it but there's always a delay between proposal writing and deployment of the funds."

Jan Egeland, who heads the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told a news conference that disaster preparation activities in the Indian Ocean area have focused on monsoons, which are common and can be devastating. Tsunamis typically occur in the area once a century, he said.

He said a warning system should be looked into. "I think it would be a massive undertaking to actually have a full-fledged tsunami warning system that would really be effective in many of these places," he said.

Hilton Root, a Milken Institute senior fellow and a former U.S. representative to the Asian Development Bank, said poverty and instability in the hardest-hit nations could be the biggest barrier to implementing the most crucial aspect of an early-warning system: moving people away from danger.

"These are countries that really don't get along, are at different stages of development and don't trust each other for political reasons," Root said. "They are just beginning to bring down trade barriers so it's an area where the political tension is easily aroused and cooperation never been easy."

But the tsunami's extraordinary toll may be "a wake-up call to these people that they need to think about regional risks and start doing something about it," Root said.

By contrast, the rich nations of the Pacific rim already have extensive, high-tech warning systems in place.

Japan, for instance, has a network of sensors that record seismic data and feed information to a national agency able to issue evacuations warnings within minutes of any quake.

And an earthquake off the California coast would have triggered instant warnings to federal and state agencies via dedicated hotlines, and to the public via emergency broadcasts, said Paul Whitmore, director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Alaska.

California also recently launched an electronic system that alerts citizens and emergency workers via e-mail and pager, said Sheryl Tankersley of the state Office of Emergency Services.

"We do have a robust system here in California," Tankersley said. "We like to say it's the best in the nation, if not the world. But it's all based on neighbor helping neighbor. Cooperation is essential."

Story Copyright © 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.