Early warning system saved Japan worst of tsunami wrath

The tsunami that hit Japan today was comparable to the one in the Indian Ocean in December 2004, except for one big difference — in the number of people killed.

The 2004 tsunami killed more than 2 lakh people, including over 10,000 in India. In comparison, the toll in today's tsunami — triggered by the most powerful earthquake Japan has ever seen and one of the strongest in history — was being put at under 400 by Japanese authorities late Friday evening India time.

Experts here said Japan, where earthquakes are endemic, escaped because of a high level of preparedness for disasters.

"Japan is used to having earthquakes; even tsunami events of minor intensities are not uncommon. The country has developed one of the best advance warning systems and an extremely efficient manner of moving people out of danger. That is the reason why there were so few deaths," said Dr Shailesh Nayak, Secretary in the Ministry of Earth Sciences.

In his earlier role as director of the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services in Hyderabad, Nayak was instrumental in developing India's own national tsunami early warning system after the 2004 tragedy. That system went fully functional a couple of years ago, and monitors seismic activity in the oceans round the clock for signs of a tsunami.

This is the system that informed the government today, within eight minutes of the tsunami hitting Japan's coast, that India would not be affected, and that there was no cause for worry.

The Indian system, which has been tested once in September 2007 during a large undersea quake in the Indian Ocean, takes about 30-45 minutes to assess whether a landward tsunami is imminent. The Japanese system is much faster.

"The system in Japan is very well attuned to earthquakes and tsunamis. There is an elaborate system of warning linked to television networks. Instances of false alarms are not uncommon but still every warning is taken with utmost seriousness," Nayak said.

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