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Out-of-hours Tongan tsunami silence troubles nation in Pacific scare

Aid for Niua gets loaded onto patrol boat VOEA Savea (Photo: Tongan Minfo)

Aid supplies for Niua being loaded onto the patrol boat VOEA Savea. Photo: Tongan Minfo

Pacific.Scoop
By Josephine Latu

Tonga’s tsunami alert system was put to the test again as another major 8.0 quake rocked Vanuatu, alarming neighbouring island states.

Tonga had expected a possible tidal wave to strike at 2.52pm yesterday, according to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre bulletin from Hawaii – before the warning was lifted.

Concern has been raised after the kingdom’s National Emergency Management Office reportedly failed to send out a tsunami warning to the public immediately after last Wednesday’s “Samoan tsunami” disaster.

On the morning of September 30, about 6.48am, an 8.0 magnitude quake struck underwater in the South Pacific, 200km from Samoa.

About 10 minutes later, a powerful tsunami generated by the seismic event struck the islands of Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga, levelling villages, devastating infrastructure, and claiming the lives of more than 180 people.

Nine were from the Tongan north-eastern island of Niuatoputapu.

At 7.04am, the Pacific warning centre in Hawaii issued a tsunami alert for the rest of the region.

The bulletin warned Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa would possibly be hit about 7.51am.

Warning failed
But, according to local media reports, the bulletin never made it out to the Tongan public – neither on the radio, television, or any sort of public alert, cautioning an impending disaster.

Radio Tonga reportedly broadcast news of the tsunami only after it hit Ha’apai and Tongatapu, although with minimal effect on the latter.

“The government did not even give an official tsunami warning. The nation … learnt there was one when people from the islands called and reported the peculiar movements of the tides – where there was a low and high tide in a matter of minutes,” deputy editor of Talaki newspaper, Tevita Motulalo, told Pacific Scoop.

More than half an hour after the Pacific warning centre issued its first bulletin, a tsunami struck the neighbouring Tongan islands of Ha’apai.

While there were no casualties, Matangi Tonga reports that just before 8am, the first of three waves up to 3m high swept about 40m inland, damaging houses, sinking a boat, and snapping the moorings of other vessels, including an oil tanker.

Local police inspector ‘Okusitino Peleki said it was only fortunate that children were already in school and none were still walking on the sea front.

“The fact is that no warning whatsoever was issued, by any agency of the government here, until after the tsunami struck Ha’apai – nothing on Radio Tonga, nothing on the Tonga Met website, no policemen with bullhorns . . . nothing,” said one writer to the local news website Matangi Tonga.

Earthquake_monitoring_station_niua

An earthquake monitoring station in Niua. Photo: Tonga Lands and Survey

He claimed at least two residents were warned by relatives who called from overseas before the tsunami struck, while there was a lack of official information.

Tevita Motulalo reported that when news of the tsunami finally broke out on Tongatapu, crowds gathered at the Nuku’alofa waterfront eager to “witness” a tsunami event, and downtown traffic came to a standstill.

‘Feeling of despair’
Amid the commotion, Motulalo said there was a “lingering feeling of despair” among locals.

“Generally there is a …public sentiment of unsafeness or uncertainty, one [where] government has yet demonstrated ineffectiveness in overlooking national security and safety,” he said.

One of the apparent reasons for the lack of a public warning from government was that the tsunami event occurred outside normal office hours.

Political Adviser to the Prime Minister Lopeti Senituli told Pacific Scoop that this was an area of concern to be addressed.

“[Head Government Geologist] Kelepi [Mafi] has stated on national radio that the fact that the National Emergency Management Office is not operational 24/7 is a major concern as disasters that occur outside of normal office hours cannot be responded to immediately,” he said.

Mafi could not be reached for comment.

Maliu Takai, director of Tonga's disaster management office, works on disaster alert system RANET. Photo: Munich Re Foundation)

Maliu Takai, director of Tonga's disaster management office, works on disaster alert system RANET. Photo: Munich Re Foundation

However, this issue has been noted before by the disaster management office.

In March 2006, the office received a 50,000 euro grant from the Munich Re Foundation to improve the local alert system for natural disasters.

Power blackout
Alertnet reports that National Emergency Management Centre director Maliu Takai (then deputy director) said that while Tonga relied on the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre to alert it of risks, “if (the warning) comes during unofficial hours definitely we’re not going to get it.

“And more definitely, those in the outlying islands will not get it.”

Two months later on May 4, 2006, a 7.9 magnitude quake occurred in Tonga at 4.26am local time. No tsunami warning was issued locally as there was a power blackout.

Since then some developments have taken place, including successful launch of a new early-warning system for national disasters used by Tonga’s Meteorological Service and National Emergency Management Office in September 2008.

This includes the installation of two RANET systems, which will operate 24/7, all year round, and transmit real-time warnings of impending windstorms and thunderstorms, as well as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.

Josephine Latu is contributing editor of the Pacific Media Centre’s Pacific Media Watch project.

1 comment:

  1. faka'ofa, 6. November 2009, 17:48

    so disappointing, what’s it going to take for the concerned centre and government to care enough to establish some kind of emergency system for the people?