Another killer tsunami this morning, this time in Samoa, points to the missing link in Australia’s recently completed warning system.

The $68.9 million Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre, involving remote sensors and based in Melbourne, has no way of quickly telling 40,000 people on Bondi Beach, or anywhere similarly vulnerable, that a deadly wave is maybe a few hours, but perhaps just minutes away.

It’s still a case of the police and surf livesavers yelling at the masses “to run for your lives”.

A spokesman for the Centre said today that in the aftermath of the Victorian bushfire disaster, the Centre was looking at adopting whatever recommendations are made for serial or universal broadcasting of warnings to mobile telephones in range of the affected areas.

Apart from the final gap in getting the message to those at risk of death, the JATWC is cutting edge. It can identify a seismic event threatening to cause an Australian tsunami within 8 minutes, and have accurately assessed the locations and times of potential destruction within 18 minutes. It can then alert the state emergency response bodies and bombard the media with warnings. But unlike in Hawaii with its sirens, or Chile, with its long established automated calls and countdowns to at-risk mobile telephone areas, there is no final message and public response strategy in Australia.

Australians remain uneducated in tsunami response  (and arguably poorly educated in bushfire response) unlike Hawaii, Japan, Chile, Taiwan, Korea and other tsunami savvy societies, where at risk residents grow up schooled in pre-arranged strategies.

The Samoa tsunami killed at least 100 people early this morning. A Richter 8.3 submarine earthquake caused a series of powerful waves that tore for more than 100 metres inland through villages.  At least seven Australians have been reported as being treated for injuries, none of which are understood to have been life-threatening.

This tsunami threatened New Zealand where it caused abnormal waves but was not a risk to Australia.

The JATWC was set up after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that killed an estimated 280,000 people in western coastal areas of parts of Indonesia and Thailand and caused damage and loss of life across the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

All Australian coastlines are at risk from tsunami, especially those originating from the Indo-Asian slip plate or similarly unstable tectonic zones near New Zealand and extending south to Macquarie Island.

There is geological evidence of large tsunamis in Australia in the comparatively recent past, and it is claimed one of them is referenced in a “great white wave” legend  in the folklore of coastal Indigenous peoples in the Illawarra and Sydney region.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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