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Shattered India wakes up to alert drill
The hand of a dead child appears from a body cover in Galle district on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, on Monday. (AFP)

Dec. 27: Sitting in Honolulu, Charles McCreery could sense that a deadly water wall was creeping up on Southeast Asia.

The head of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center frantically tried to look up a number he could dial. 'We don't have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world,' McCreery said.

It no longer may remain so.

Almost 24 hours after the killer wave devastated several countries that did not have a tsunami warning mechanism, India has decided to join a network of around 20 countries which alert one another to changes in the sea pressure and possibility of the onset of high waves related to earthquakes.

India had not joined the group yet because most experts believed that a tsunami is an alien phenomenon to the subcontinent.

But tsunamis had struck India before: one killed several hundred people near Mumbai in 1945 and another ' one of the earliest tsunamis recorded in the region ' ravaged what is now Bangladesh and other parts of the Bay of Bengal in 1762.

Jolted, the Union government has now decided to instal a sea floor pressure recording system in the Indian Ocean to send warnings in the event of a tsunami building up in the seas.

The new system would be linked to an existing device called data buoy which records sea surface parameters, minister of state for science and technology Kapil Sibal said in New Delhi today. 'If the country had had such an alert system in place, we could have warned the coastal areas of the imminent danger and avoided the loss of life,' he said.

Since a tsunami is generated at the source of an underwater earthquake, there is usually time ' from 20 minutes to two hours ' to get people away as it builds in the ocean.

Experts feel that a warning could have given India a probable headstart of over an hour and a half to mount rescue operations.

'It took an hour and a half for the wave to get from the earthquake to Sri Lanka and an hour for it to get ... to the west coast of Thailand and Malaysia,' McCreery said. 'You can walk inland for 15 minutes to get to a safe area.'

Part of the warning group, Indonesia was alerted about the train of waves but since the epicentre was too close, it could not have acted fast enough to stave off the tragedy, the experts said.

Although waves swamped parts of the Sumatran coast and nearby islands within minutes, there would have been time to alert more distant communities if the Indian Ocean had a warning network like that in the Pacific, said Tad Murty, an expert on the region's tsunamis who is affiliated with the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

Within 15 minutes of the earthquake, in fact, scientists running the existing tsunami warning system for the Pacific, where such waves are far more common, sent an alert from their Honolulu hub to 26 participating countries, including Thailand and Indonesia, that destructive waves might be generated by the Sumatra tremors.

But there was no way to convey that information speedily to countries or communities an ocean away, said Laura S.L. Kong, a commerce department seismologist and director of the International Tsunami Information Center, an office run under the auspices of the US.

Phone calls were hurriedly made to countries in the Indian Ocean danger zone, she said, but not with the speed that comes from pre-established emergency planning.

'Outside the Pacific these things don't occur very often at all so the challenge is how to make people and government officials aware,' she said.

However, Murty, who is originally from India, said that with population densities enormously high in many parts of coastal southern Asia, the region should have started setting up such a network long ago.

McCreery said it takes a substantial investment and long-term commitment to set up 24-hour communications infrastructure, operational capabilities and specialised training but declined to estimate the cost.

US agencies are now trying to help officials in the region set up some sort of an informal warning system and feeling badly that more couldn't have been done, McCreery said.

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