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High-tech buoys to warn of disaster

The buoys are programmed to send an alert to the mainland if they detect a change in the seabed.


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BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (CNN) -- Almost a year after the Indian Ocean tsunami slammed ashore on December 26, 2004, experts have finished installing stage one of a high-tech early warning system.

In one of the worst hit regions, Indonesia's Banda Aceh still bears scars from the wave -- you see it in the twisted metal, in the gutted buildings and the naked foundations where homes once stood.

At present, no one can predict a tsunami, but on board the German research vessel Sonne, scientists are installing a system that will give people warning if disaster strikes.

In a joint project with the Indonesian government, the researchers have spent eight months designing, testing and surveying to get the two early-warning buoys ready for deployment.

Udo Barckhausen, a geophysicist on board the Sonne, told CNN that the 7-meter (22-foot) buoys are programmed to detect changes in the seabed, and send alerts to the Indonesian mainland.

"With everything in place, from the technical side we can raise the alarm in less than five minutes. Which would -- even for costal areas close by -- would be enough," he said.

The buoys, which measure movement on the surface, are linked to sensors, placed on the ocean floor to detect sea activity.

If any changes are picked up, the information is sent via satellite.

But the high-end system of seabed sensors and buoys, located off the coast of Sumatra, will amount to nothing unless the warning it picks up is relayed to every person on the beach.

The Red Cross will play a crucial role in ensuring the system works at a ground level, by making sure that people on land are aware if an alarm is raised by the buoy system.

Virgil Grandfield, of the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and Red Crescent Societies, told CNN the aid organizations hope a new cartoon will educate people about what to do when the warning sounds.

The cartoon shows how the Red Cross would relay a warning, it also shows how the community should respond.

Grandfield said about 100,000 people have already seen the simple, but potentially life-saving, message.

"The early warning system, which is definitely technology-based, still depends on the people on the other end of it. The cartoon teaches people how to rebuild their communities in a safer way, but also how the early warning system would work at their end," he said.

The Red Cross is also training volunteers based throughout the tsunami zone about what roles they can play once the warning sounds.

Fisherman Bustami Anzib remembers the tsunami vividly.

When it struck, he was at sea while his wife and three children were at home asleep.

When he returned, there was no sign of his family. Bustami now lives in a tent next to his two remaining relatives.

"My house was a traditional house made of wood. But it's long gone," he told CNN.

Today, Banda Aceh is rattled by quakes sometimes two to three times a week. With every rumble, the people head to the hills.

After a while though, they might be able to stop doing that once the entire early-warning system is installed, which is expected to be by next year.

-- CNN's Kristie Lu Stout contributed to this report.

-- The Spark show looking at how technology can help during natural disasters airs on CNN International on Sunday, Nov. 27 in Europe at 2030 CET, and in Asia at 2030 HKT

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