US tests 'Presidential Alerts' as Indonesia comes to terms with neglected early warning system

Nearly 300 million US mobile phones received "Presidential Alerts" at 2.18pm on Oct 3, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

As Indonesians struggle for answers to why an early warning system that could have alerted thousands to an oncoming tsunami failed last week, on the other side of the world, the United States was taking a big step towards girding Americans for the possibility of calamity.

At 2.18pm on Wednesday (Oct 3), nearly 300 million US mobile phones lit up with "Presidential Alerts" - part of the country's first test of a network that would push warning of imminent danger onto mobile devices.

Inevitably known as "Trump Texts", the Federal Emergency Management Agency is conducting the tests as the country reels from severe weather in the form of hurricanes on the Eastern seaboard to the threat of intercontinental missiles from North Korea.

The system augments an already robust early warning system. Broadcasters have been issuing public announcements for decades. US government agencies have issued more than 40,000 local warnings to mobile phones, since the practice started in 2012.

Not everyone was happy, though, that the government was unveiling a nationwide alert system which ropes in the country's 100 or so carriers into the network. The alerts are loud and unavoidable if the mobile phone is switched on.

Three New Yorkers have filed a suit in court to put a stop to the systems in part because it may violate free speech, according to media reports. This is despite a 2015 legislation that prohibits President Donald Trump from using the alerts for political means.

The US tests were delayed since late last month, owing to the onslaught of Hurricane Florence, which pummelled the US states of North and South Carolina as well as Maryland.

In the case of Indonesia, the US-style warning system may have mitigated the damage following last Friday's quake that unleashed a wall of water 5m high onto the city of Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi, says Taipei-based Dr Li Wei-sen, chair of the APEC Emergency Preparedness Working Group.

"We need to develop a system that uses fixed land lines, cellular phones along with broadcasters and Internet," Dr Li told The Straits Times.

"When one system is down another has to work."

Media reports following the tsunami suggest officials at the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics (BMKG) underestimated the size because of faulty tidal gauges and downed mobile phone towers, which made it impossible to verify data. The agency said on Monday that buoys off the coast of Sulawesi that are used to detect sudden tidal surges have not worked in six years.

Equipment such as seabed monitors and buoys need to be replaced every two years and the public needs to be educated on how to respond, Dr Li says.

"When people hear a warning they have to think that it's time to act, not time to wait," Dr Li says.

BMKG chief Dwikorita Karnawati was asked to resign on Thursday by members of a House commission in Indonesia. A commission member said the BMKG's negligence in its disaster detection efforts was a fatal mistake.

Professor Phil Cummins, of the Research School of Earth Sciences at Australian National University in Canberra, told The Straits Times that more quakes may be in the offing.

Last week's 7.4-magnitude quake was the strongest recorded in the region, Professor Cummins said. The epicentre appears to have occurred on the Palu-Koro fault line, which runs from north to south.

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Prof Cummins says the powerful temblor could ignite other quakes along the fault line. Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi, which is located 100km to the south of the epicentre, may be in for more seismic activity, not just aftershocks.

"It's an open question how far the rupture extended on the fault line," Prof Cummins said. There is always the possibility that an earthquake that size can trigger another event either north or south along the fault line.

Palu sits on one of several small tectonic plates in the area that shifts between 4cm and 6cm a year, Prof Cummins says.

The Central Sulawesi quake was almost certainly unrelated to the series of devastating temblors in the resort island of Lombok in August about 1,000km away that claimed the lives of 430 people, owing to the distance between the events.

Also on Wednesday, North Sulawesi's Mount Soputan, about 600km north-east from Palu erupted, spewing ash roughly 4km into the air.

As President Joko Widodo makes a second visit to the area to monitor rescue efforts, officials fear the death toll, already at more than 1,400, may rise further as rescue workers push into areas cut off by landslides.

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Until 2004, most of the tsunami warning equipment was deployed around the United States and Japan, Dr Li said. Since the tsunami that year which killed more than 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean, dozens have been deployed around seismic hot spots throughout Asia.

Japan and Taiwan's mix of buoys and seabed monitors can detect pressure generated by an earthquake and zap it to super computers on land which in turn spit out a tsunami warning in five seconds. Even so, nearly 20,000 people died in the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan's eastern prefecture of Fukushima.

Assistant Professor Wei Shengji, principal investigator at the Earth Observatory of Singapore, said getting better instrumentation and having better research, education and planning are an ongoing battle.

"In every earthquake there is always something that can be done better," he said.

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