STUPIDITY & SAFETY (SELF PRESERVATION) - SEISMOLIGISTS SHUT UP!
Thai weather officials under attack for lack of warning
Wednesday December 29, 4:00 pm ET
By Amy Kazmin in Bangkok
Thailand was on Wednesday grasping the magnitude of the tsunami disaster amid criticism that meteorological officials had been too hesitant to warn of the risks of a sea surge in case they were wrong.
Thailand's meteorological department knew by 8.10am (local time) on Sunday about an hour before the first waves hit that a powerful earthquake had struck near Sumatra, and they discussed the possibility that the quake could cause large sea disturbances. The department had already distributed information pamphlets several years ago explaining the risks of tsunamis around southern Thai beach resorts.
But without definitive proof of an imminent tsunami, the meteorological department dared not issue a national warning lest it be accused of spreading panic and hurting the tourism industry if the disturbances did not materialise.
"Not every earthquake that occurs in the sea will cause a tsunami; it is very difficult to know," said Sumalee Prachuab, a seismologist at the department. "If we issue a warning about the possibility of a tsunami, people will panic very much.
"Phuket is for the tourists, and [if we warn] they will cancel everything," she said. "Then if the tsunami did not occur, the meteorological department will have many telephone calls, complaining 'why did you make that prediction?'.
"Five years ago, we did distribute some papers about the tsunami, telling people 'Protect yourself'," she said. "We said, if you feel the earthquake when you are swimming in the sea, please go quickly to land. But the Thai people maybe forgot."
More than 1,600 people, including 473 foreigners, were officially confirmed dead on Wednesday, and the number of missing is now pegged at more than 4,000. Nearly 1,000 of those still unaccounted for were said to be Swedes, and another several hundred Norwegians. At Khao Lak, a favourite destination for European tourists, local police said they had already recovered about 1,000 bodies, and that the final toll at the resort zone could rise to 2,500 to 3,000.
On Phi Phi island, rescue workers have also pulled hundreds of bodies from the wreckage of holiday bungalows levelled by the force of the surge.
As the number of dead rises, Thai authorities admitted that they were struggling against time and the elements to identify hundreds of victims brought to four Buddhist temples, now acting as makeshift morgues, in Khao Lak.
"The difficulty now is to identify the nationality of those who died, to identify whether they are Thais or foreigners," Surakiart Sathirathai, the foreign minister, said. US search and rescue aircraft with special surveillance equipment also began making special flights yesterday to try to locate other victims. Teams of foreign doctors and other rescue workers have also arrived to aid the effort.
Recriminations are likely to grow as the immediate crisis abates.