Sulawesi suffered catastrophic damage in an earthquake and tsunami, shown here in Perumnas Balaroa village in Palu.
By ANDY MANGELSDORF
Weak local government and lack of education are to blame for the catastrophic consequences of the tsunami that hit Indonesia in September, says the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climate and Geophysics.
Agency spokesman Hary Tirto Djatmiko said the agency did nothing wrong, despite the fact that warnings were issued late and there was little time for evacuations.
The tsunami warnings failed to reach Palu and Donggala on Sulawesi after the 7.7-magnitude earthquake and three successive 6m-high tsunami waves wreaked destruction on the island.
He said the warnings went out “without trouble, all in accordance with [procedures]".
He said the warning was sent out via SMS at 6.02pm, five minutes after the earthquake struck and three minutes before the tsunami.
Reuters reports that the first wave rolled into Palu just four minutes after the quake, beating the warnings sent out by the agency.
Survivors say the warning SMS did not get through to locals in the affected regions.
Mr Djatmiko said this was because the earthquake disrupted the mobile network.
Locals wait to board a military plane for evacuation at the airport in Palu earlier this month.
The earthquake, which struck just 27km from Donggala, wreaked havoc on the communities and the neighbouring city of Palu.
In some areas, the ground turned to liquid and swallowed houses in a process known as liquefaction.
The high death toll of more than 2000 has prompted further questions about the capabilities of the tsunami warning system, called InaTEWS, which was installed in an international effort after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.
Completed in 2011, the InaTEWS system of buoys relaying data to satellites was problematic because passing ships would steal parts, driving up maintenance costs, BBC reported.
Most buoys no longer work, and were replaced by a system of tidal gauges and seismic monitors.
Indonesian soldiers stand beside packages of aid at the airport in Palu.
Since the disaster, there has been a lot of misinformation in reports, said geology expert and research fellow at Curtin University, Dr Jane Cunneen, who worked for seven years at the UN and helped set up the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami.
“There is a lot of talk about the high-tech tsunami warning systems developed over the last 14 years, but unfortunately in cases like Palu the current technology wouldn’t have been able to help even if there had been more sensors in the area,” she said.
Dr Cunneen said these discussions showed a lack of understanding of how tsunami warning systems actually operated, and how limited they were..
“Regional tsunami warning systems are designed to provide warning to areas at least 200-300km from the earthquake epicentre,” she said.
Mr Djatmiko said InaTEWS was not the problem, but rather the failure of infrastructure on a local level as well as a lack of education.
“It is important to strengthen the local government, and the community must continue to be educated about earthquakes and tsunamis," he said.
"The community must understand to evacuate independently when the epicentre of an earthquake is near the coast.”
He said people could use the earthquake as an "early warning" sign to get away from the coast.
Dr Cunneen said people in regions close to earthquakes should instinctively move to higher ground immediately after the shaking stopped.
“Unfortunately it is also clear that not everyone was aware of the risk and there were still people on the coast when the wave hit,” she said.
“It highlights the need for ongoing education in coastal communities so that people are aware of the need to evacuate immediately if they feel a strong earthquake, not relying on information from authorities.”