In 2004 a magnitude 9.1 earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami that traveled through the Indian Ocean and killed more than 230,000 people in a dozen different countries. To this day it is one of the deadliest natural disasters ever. So scientists immediately started installing buoy systems that could warn people of such threats earlier, and hopefully save thousands of lives.
When a magnitude 7.8 quake shook Indonesia earlier this week, tsunami warnings were spread. The quake had struck 15 miles deep, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and was merely 500 miles west of Padang. Warnings for places like Coco Island, parts of Australia, and Christmas Island went out shortly after. Sirens rang in some coastal areas that were threatened, but oddly not in others. Two hours after Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency issued a tsunami warning, they lifted it after learning small tsunami had actually already reached Coco Island and Padang City in Sumatra. Thankfully, this quake hadn’t caused the same destruction of that 2004 tragedy but the odd series of events following the 7.8 tremor caught the attention of many.
As it turned out, all 22 buoys installed in the area hadn’t even been operational. The system, which included buoys, sirens, and sea-bed detection systems that transmit information to satellites, had originally been funded by foreign donors. But since 2014 the Indonesian government hasn’t been funding the tsunami master plan, with one official blaming the malfunction on vandalism and theft by local fishermen. A spokesperson for the National Disaster Management Agency says it will cost $831 million to replace all 22 of the buoys and install a new master plan program for future potential disasters.
“This is not a trivial matter,” Costas Synolakis, director the Tsunami Research Center at the University of Southern California said. “False warnings diminish the credibility of the system, people become cynical and complacent.”