The tsunami that struck Indonesia’s Sulawesi island last week has proven devastating. With death tolls in the mid-800s and still rising, the true devastation of the tidal wave will not be known for weeks, and possibly months. In its aftermath, the Indonesian government has made a stunning admission: The tsunami early warning system in place around Sulawesi has not been working for six years.
The warning system, a network of 22 buoys attached to seafloor sensors, is supposed to transfer data to the Indonesian meteorology and geophysics agency known as BMKG. That’s not what happened, leaving many people without sufficient warning for the natural disaster.
The Indonesian government has come under severe criticism for how its warning system acted under the crisis. After a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck with an epicenter off the coast of Sulawesi, the government issued a tsunami warning. However, it was rescinded after just 34 minutes. While the government notes that the tsunami’s third and final wave hit right before the warning ending, the larger issue of warning awareness looms large in the recovery.
“Our [current] tools are very lacking,” says Rahmat Triyono, the BMKG’s head of earthquake and tsunamis, speaking to BBC Indonesian.
“In fact, of the 170 earthquake sensors we have, we only have a maintenance budget for 70 sensors.”
A spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), Sutopo Purwo Nugroho confirmed Triyono’s comments during a press conference on Sunday, saying that “If we look at the funding [for emergency awareness], it has decreased every year.”
The buoys provided an opportunity for crucial early warning signs. They were put in place after a similar disaster—the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that hit the Indonesian island of Sumatra. After killing approximately 150,000 people, the government invested in buoys, thousands of kilometers of undersea cable, undersea seismometers and pressure sensors in hopes of shaving valuable minutes off the response time.
This isn’t the first time this new buoys system has failed. In 2016, all 22 buoys were again useless in the face of a tsunami caused due to a 7.8 earthquake. At the time, Nugroho said that the buoys were inoperable due to either vandalism or lack of funds for maintenance.
It appears that nothing has changed within two years. As Indonesia works to rebuild after the disaster, some are wondering if a tsunami warning system even serves a purpose anymore. Rather than offering a warning of some potential disaster, some experts say, the government should try to focus on getting the world out about evacuation first and foremost.
“What Indonesian colleagues have commented upon is that people were confused about what to do with the alert information,” says Gavin Sullivan, a Coventry University psychologist who works with the Indonesian Resilience Initiative on a disaster preparation, speaking to the Australian ABC News. The 34-minute alert only went to text messages, meaning that many people at the beach where the tsunami struck were unaware of the impending disaster until it was too late.
“This points to the failing to do appropriate training and to develop trust so that people know exactly what to do when an alert is issued,” says Sullivan.
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics