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How safe is the Indian Ocean now?

Regional warning system expected to open in 2006

By Marianne Bray
CNN

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A sign on Patrong beach in Phuket shows the evacuation route.

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(CNN) -- On 17 March 2005, 81 days after a massive tsunami swept away a great swathe of humanity in nations bordering the Indian Ocean, scientists from Ireland's University of Ulster predicted a quake would soon rattle fault lines near Indonesia.

Just 11 days later, on 28 March, a 8.7-magnitude quake erupted at almost exactly the spot they had pinpointed.

Now those scientists -- who have been joined by a chorus of others around the world including experts from the California Institute of Technology -- have looked at the data and say the stresses that have emerged could mean another big quake near Indonesia, and soon.

But six months on, how prepared are the nations bordering the Indian Ocean for a big quake and any subsequent tsunami?

Can tourists return to areas that were swept away by the massive walls of water, and can residents rest assured there is a system in place that will tell them to run when they need to?

The Indian Ocean's monitoring systems fall short of the standard in the Pacific Ocean, which is wired to measure seismic shifts and has water gauges and buoys in place to monitor sea levels and then warn nations.

People knew so little about tsunamis that many walked closer to the ocean on December 26, marveling at the flapping fish and grounded boats as the sea retreated.

That ignorance was disastrous, triggering the biggest humanitarian mission ever. More than 226,000 people were listed as dead or missing, while 1.7 million were displaced and more than 500,000 lost their homes.

In the aftermath of the deadliest tsunami in recorded history, the 56-year-old Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Hawaii and Japan's Meteorological Agency stepped in to fill the gap.

Tasked with monitoring only the Pacific Ocean, they started sending information and warnings to a number of Indian Ocean nations which had asked for help, said Delores Clark, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, under which the PTWC falls.

Looking for a long-term solution, UNESCO is hammering out a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean, trying to get a network of 27 nations bordering the sea to work together.

They are hoping to have it running by July of next year.

After much squabbling over which nation would host the regional center under such a plan, nations decided to have several hubs that link to each other.

Already Thailand, Indonesia and India are making moves to set up their own national systems to monitor their shorelines.

Thailand is leading the way, setting up a disaster warning center in Bangkok in May, open 24 hours a day.

"In Phuket, from the moment they receive a warning into the Bangkok center, analyze it, and get it down to the community through radio, TV, sirens and towers, there's a 3 to 5 minute gap," says Joseph Chung, head of the U.N.'s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, from his Bangkok office.

Text warnings

The center can send text warnings to 20 million mobile phones. Next step will be to install seabed monitors and deep water buoys around the Andaman Sea, the government says.

Meanwhile, Indonesia is working with German engineers to use satellites to keep an eye on its coasts, but the first phase of a warning system is not likely to be ready until the middle of next year, says Stephen Hill, the director of the regional science bureau for Asia Pacific UNESCO, based in Jakarta.

You have challenges when "not a wave, but the whole ocean wants to go onshore," he says.

Indonesia is particularly hard pressed. It is sitting on a ring of fire, with plates colliding against each other. Islands in the archipelago lie so close to the action that by the time any information comes in from any deep-water buoys, the waves likely would have already hit the land, Hill says.

What's more, people are still panic-stricken with tremors hitting the devastated Aceh region. Add to that the challenge of coordinating a number of agencies and the task seems mammoth.

While it is important to have the equipment, experts say it is just as important to get the warnings out to the public, and for the public to know what to do.

"Just having the technology in place is not enough," NOAA's Clark says. "You need to have the communication plan, the evacuation plan and notify the public by some means."

Key to that is getting people to understand what the natural warning signs are, particularly with UNESCO predicting that 75 percent of humanity will live in coastal areas by 2030.

"Ground shaking, water receding, loud roars," are what you watch for, says Clark. If you see or hear any of those things, move inland and uphill fast.

In remote areas, the task gets harder, as agencies have to work out how to transmit information from satellites to tiny communities.

"There's a need to have the fishing family on the coastline to be able to be prepared and to be aware of the hazard that is before them," Chung says.

In Indonesia, the community needs to be strongly engaged in the process, with leaders clued in to what is going on so that people don't sit around or panic so much that they trample each other, Hill says.

"By the time the ocean moves, you've got to move quickly," he says.

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