George Pararas-Carayannis

As the death toll in Papua New Guinea's West Sepik province rises, many people want to know why there was no warning issued for the tsunami. Any criticism that the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Honolulu, may have been insufficient in providing proper warning for the tsunami - affected region in Papua-New Guinea is completely without any foundation.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center Acted Correctly and Efficiently

PTWC is not in the position to provide tsunami warnings for locally generated tsunamis within close proximity to the earthquake source. PTWC functioned properly and correctly in assessing that the earthquake that generated the 17, July 1998, tsunami that struck Papua New Guinea did not generate a Pacific-wide tsunami and therefore was not of threat to other regions of the Pacific. The Center in Honolulu cannot issue local tsunami warnings. Pacific nations must further develop their own local and regional warning systems. But even if such a local warning system was in place in Papua- New Guinea, the time interval between the quake and the tsunami was so short that it would not have made any difference.


Communications within the Affected Region were Insufficient

Communications and proper

infrastructure does not exist for this vulnerable area of PNG where the destructive tsunami struck. Even the authorities in PNG did not know about this disaster until the following morning when a Catholic nun on a mission there, radioed church headquarters at Port Moresby. It was only then that the world found out about this disaster and rescue efforts begun.

Future Adverse Effects of Tsunami Disasters in PNG can be Mitigated

Indeed what happened in PNG is regrettable. The extensive loss of life could have been prevented with some basic preparedness and proper public education, particularly of the children. Although a local warning system could not respond quickly enough to warn about a tsunami from a local earthquake in the immediate vicinity, the earthquake motion itself was a warning that a tsunami was on its way. There was a time interval of a couple of precious minutes between the earthquake and the tsunami. Also, the first wave is not always the largest. With proper planning, even without higher ground to run to, adults and children could have implemented a plan of vertical evacuation to a strong platform(s) above ground which could have been constructed in each village. Such structures, particularly in an area known to be seismically active could have saved most of the lives.

The vulnerability of this region was indeed known, given the geological setting of the region, the existence of active seismicity and the interactions of plate tectonics. Perhaps the exact day of the event could not be predicted, but it was only a question of time before it happened. In fact, it will happen again in the future.


Disaster Planning and Preparedness Are Needed in PNG

For years, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), tried to get PNG to join the Pacific Tsunami Warning System and to establish a regional system of its own. Twice the author visited PNG, on behalf of the International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning in the Pacific (ICG/ITSU) and the IOC , the last time in 1989 as chief scientist of a three member team sponsored by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Recommendations Made Previously

This last time we had a long discussion with PNG's head of the Civil Defense Agency and the Director of the Port Moresby Observatory (the late Ian Everingham) about the dangers that potential tsunamis presented for the country. Specifically we indicated the area on the Bismark Sea as being the boundary of very active tectonic plate interaction, where a disastrous tsunami could be expected in the future. During these meetings, we pointed out the need for PNG to join the Pacific Tsunami Warning System and to develop a regional warning capability of its own at the Port Moresby Geophysical Observatory, which indeed is an excellent facility and run by very professional people. As a first step, we identified the need for the Port Moresby Observatory to be manned continually 24-hours a day. Also, we pointed out the need to develop a standard operating plan for PNG to deal with such local emergencies. We emphasized the need of a program of public education, particularly for the children.

Finally, based on our assessments, a five year Master Plan was drafted for the region as well as proposals for UNDP's funding of the project. Unfortunately, other UNDP projects took precedence and funding for this particular project was unavailable.


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