Tsunami warning system fails after quake in Tonga

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NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga (AP) – If the giant earthquake in the South Pacific had spawned a deadly tsunami, many islanders would not have learned about it until a wall of water bore down on them.

Nearly 18 months after a tsunami in the Indian Ocean left at least 216,000 people dead or missing, sparking international calls for a better warning system, Pacific islanders got little or no notice of the latest possible tsunami.

A warning issued by the Honolulu-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said that Fiji, New Zealand, Tonga, Niue, American Samoa, Samoa and Wallis-Futuna could be threatened. It was lifted within two hours, after a wave of less than 2 feet was recorded.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center’s first alert went out 16 minutes after the magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck at 4:26 a.m. Thursday, about 95 miles south of Neiafu, Tonga, and 1,340 miles north-northeast of Auckland, New Zealand.

But the alert was not received in Tonga – closest to the epicenter – because of a power failure there, said the center’s acting director, Gerard Fryer.

“There was problem in Tonga where there was a power outage and they didn’t get our initial message,” he said, adding that the center needs to work with Tonga to correct the problem. He said he did not know whether the power failure was caused by the earthquake.

“We usually send it through e-mails, faxes, we make phone calls to the places nearest to the epicenter to make sure people are warned,” center geophysicist Victor Sardina said.

Mali’u Takai, deputy director of the Tonga’s National Disaster Office, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that no warning was received.

“Nobody got a warning through the emergency satellite system in our meteorological office,” Takai said. “Judging by the location of the epicenter, we would have been caught out without any warning at all because of the system’s malfunction.”

However, any warning probably would have been too late for Tongans if a major tsunami had come, because the epicenter was so close.

In Fiji, a tsunami warning alarm sounded in the capital, Suva. But authorities apparently failed to inform citizens, many on tiny and remote islands with poor communications.

The alarm was went off at 5:33 a.m. local time – three minutes after Fijian weather authorities relayed the warning, Police Inspector Penioni Ravoka said.

“People are being warned to move to the higher grounds,” he said. It is was not immediately clear how many people heeded the warning.

But the alarm system only operated on the main Fijian mainland – not the 110 other inhabited Fijian islands.

“The alarm is only on the mainland. In the rest, police stations have been informed to keep a watch,” he said. Ravoka said “it is difficult” to warn residents of all the inhabited islands.

At the Wakaya Club, a private luxury Fijian island resort where recent guests have included Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards, staff were alerted to the danger through satellite television news.

But the danger passed without the need to alert the guests or evacuate them to the island’s high point, a resort employee said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to make press statements.

In New Zealand, hundreds of residents on the country’s east coast fled their homes after hearing media reports.

A spokesman for New Zealand’s National Crisis Management Center, Allen Walley, said authorities did not issue a national civil defense warning.

“The Ministry of Civil Defense and Emergency Management was in contact with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center throughout the process and was alerted to a possible tsunami,” he said. “Overseas media reports had incorrectly suggested a threat and the need for evacuations.”

New Zealand coastal resident Philip Payne, manager of the Ocean Beach Motor Lodge, said he did not know about the threat until it had passed.

But the lack of contact from Civil Defense has him worried because it would have been a major exercise to evacuate his 60 guests, along with his own family.

“We had no awareness whatsoever,” Payne said. “I’m concerned. We certainly would have needed to be contacted by Civil Defense and told of where we could have evacuated our guests if necessary.”

Authorities along New Zealand’s east coast had been on full alert and ready to evacuate people in low-lying areas prone to wave damage, officials said.

Many people didn’t wait for official word.

“Most of the coastal centers self-evacuated” in reaction to the TV reports, Gisborne Civil Defense controller Richard Steel said. “I would guess hundreds (of people) self-evacuated. … Those television reports were a bit irresponsible.”

Steel said civil defense workers, police, fire and other emergency workers had been on full alert along the coastal region “and all ready to go” to help “evacuate people who are at risk” from any tsunami.

Barbara Callender in Gisborne said the false alarm was a wake-up call for residents.

“I think it was great because at least it is making us very aware that this could be quite serious, and think about the things that we seriously needed to take with us,” she said. “It (made) us think about how we would go about an evacuation.”

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