27 Oct 2010

Tsunami and volcano hit Indonesia killing hundreds

Hundreds of people are dead in Indonesia after a tsunami and volcano struck the country. An earth scientist has told Channel 4 News there is a need for educational campaigns in tsunami prone areas.

Indonesia tsunami: baby survivor (Reuters)

A 10-foot tsunami triggered by an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra has killed more than 240 people. Hundreds more are still missing and the death toll is expected to rise.

Rescuers are battling to reach the remote Mentawai islands, a sparsely populated surfing destination. The 7.7-magnitude quake struck late on Monday night 13 miles beneath the ocean floor. It was followed by at least 13 aftershocks.

Amateur footage emerging from the scene of the disaster shows flattened homes and flooded land.

A group of survivors arrived in the town of Padang on Wednesday. Eight Australians and one New Zealander said they were on the back deck of their chartered boat, anchored in a bay, when the quake hit just before 10 pm local time on Monday.

There’s a real need for public education campaigns emphasising the fact that you can warn yourself. Dr Simon Day

It generated a wave that pushed their boat into a neighbouring vessel. A fire soon ripped through their cabin.

Daniel North, an American crew member of the yacht ‘MV Midas’, said that the captain almost immediately ordered passengers to abandon ship after the fire: “The boat here, ‘Freedom’, was anchored outside of us. They were caught by the wave, came surfing into us on the wave, hit us directly in the side of the boat, piercing a fuel tank.

“‘Midas’ caught on fire immediately, in about 30 seconds, almost immediately, the captain gave the order to abandon ship and everyone got off the boat.”

One earth scientist has told Channel 4 News that better education in tsunami prone areas is just as important as early warning systems.

Dr Simon Day from the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre at University College London said the public safety message does not always get through to vulnerable communities: “We’re getting eye-witness accounts from the area affected by this tsunami saying ‘we felt the earthquake and then 10 minutes later we heard a crashing sound, a rushing noise and a roar. We looked outside and a wave was coming’.

“This means they didn’t respond to the first earthquake, they were just sitting there until they heard the tsunami coming in by which point it was too late.

“Public awareness is actually key to self warning, responding yourself. It’s also fundamental to knowing what to do when a warning comes down. If a warning comes down and people don’t know what to do with it it’s useless.

“So there’s a real need for public education campaigns emphasising the fact that you yourself can warn yourself if you know what the earthquake means and you know what to do then you can self warn, you can save yourself.”

Dr Simon Day said newcomers or tourists to a tsunami prone area are particularly at risk: “When we look at indigenous communities that have been living in areas like this for hundreds or thousands of years who have acquired knowledge of tsunamis from past experience and who have passed it down through generations then they know.

“We have accounts going right back to the beginning of the colonial period where colonial officials arrive and they feel the earth shake but don’t respond but the local population does. They know, they head for high ground.”

“The essential problem with warning systems is they take time to take effect..in this case the warning was generated seven minutes after the earthquake which is pretty good as these things go but nevertheless it’s still seven minutes of delay.

“The problem is most casualties which are caused by a tsunami happen in the zone of shaking from the earthquake and within the first half an hour to an hour or so of the tsunami. With moderate sized tsunami like the one that has just occurred all the casualties are close to the source of the tsunami.”

Eight hundred miles away from the scene of the tsunami one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes spewed out clouds of burning ash killing at least 30 people.

Mount Merapi, on the outskirts of the city of Yogyakarta on Java island, first erupted on Tuesday.

Authorities have been trying to evacuate more than 11,000 villagers living on the slopes of the volcano, where many houses have been destroyed, the ruins lying covered in white ash.

Rescuers have been scouring the debris for survivors. Authorities warned the thousands who fled Mount Merapi’s wrath not to return during Wednesday’s lull in volcanic activity, but some villagers were desperate to check on crops and possessions left behind.

Dr. Teguh Dwi Santosa, a doctor at a local hospital, said the death toll climbed to 30 on Wednesday and 17 had been hospitalised, mostly with burns, respiratory problems and other injuries.

Among the dead was Maridjan, an 83-year-old man who had been entrusted by a highly respected late king to watch over the volcano’s spirits.

Mount Merapi, which translates as “Fire Mountain,” has erupted many times over the last 200 years, often with deadly results. In 1994, 60 people were killed, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were incinerated, leaving up to 1,300 dead.