Archive for Monday, July 24, 2006

Dangerous surf halts searches in Indonesia

July 24, 2006

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— High waves halted search efforts Sunday for hundreds of people still missing following the Indonesian tsunami as a powerful quake elsewhere in the sprawling archipelago triggered fears of another killer wave.

The 6.1 magnitude quake off Sulawesi island Sunday afternoon caused coastal residents to flee inland, some screaming "Beware tsunami! Beware tsunami!"

Indonesian officials - who have come under fire for failing to warn people ahead of last week's tsunami on Java island - said it had the potential to trigger destructive waves. They later said no waves was generated and told residents to return home.

The tsunami that hit Java on July 17 killed at least 668 people. Some 74,000 residents have been displaced, either because their homes were destroyed or out of fear of living next to the sea. More than 280 are missing, officials say.

The chance of finding survivors is considered unlikely, but marine police and navy boats have been carrying out daily patrols in search of corpses. Bad weather Sunday prevented the teams from leaving port, officials said.

Emergency workers hoped to continue their search today, but it depends on the weather. Most seaworthy boats were destroyed in the massive waves, and authorities cannot take rubber dinghies out to the ocean.

The government started setting up an early warning system after the 2004 tsunami that killed at least 216,000 people across the Indian Ocean rim, more than half of them on Indonesia's Sumatra island. But it is still in the initial stages.

Only two monitoring buoys have been installed, and a government minister acknowledged Friday that they had broken from their moorings and are now being repaired on land, underscoring the problems in maintaining the high-tech system.

Even if they had been operational, the buoys off Sumatra's coast do not cover Java island.

The government has come under fire, however, for failing to tell coastal authorities about bulletins from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and Japan's Meteorological Agency saying killer waves could be on the way.

Officials tried to explain their decision. Sgt. Sudarman, a detective with the marine police in Pangandaran, said that scores of lives could have been saved with even a few minutes' notice.

"We would not have been able to warn everybody, but we could have told those nearby and at least reduced the number of casualties," he said, adding that officers learned of the tsunami threat after receiving a phone call from reporters.

By then it was too late, he said. The water was already receding - a sign of an imminent tsunami - and they were able to save only themselves.

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