Indonesia Reels From Earthquake, Tsunami, Volcano Disasters

Hundreds dead, thousands displaced in the archipelago nation

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Monday evening, local time, a 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck near the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. The quake launched a tsunami that killed at least 343 people. Less than 24 hours later, Mount Merapi, a volcano on the Indonesian island of Java, erupted, killing at least 34. The combined disasters of earthquake, tsunami, and volcano have overwhelmed Indonesia's emergency-response services, and officials are scrambling to get aid to the displaced, who number in the tens of thousands. Here's a look at some early analysis of what went wrong and what we can expect next.

  • The Aftermath  The New York Times reports that the tsunami has left 343 dead and 338 missing, with an additional 16,000 displaced. The volcano is confirmed to have killed 34 and sent an estimated 40,000 into temporary shelters while seismologists try to figure out whether further eruptions are forthcoming. The remote Mentawai islands, said to be "among the most underdeveloped areas of Indonesia," were also among those hardest hit by the tsunami, but weather conditions have prevented aid from coming in at more than a trickle.

  • Worse May Be Yet to Come  The New York Times' Andrew Revkin consults with Kerry Sieh of the Earth Observatory of Singapore. Sieh's prediction? "Far worse is in store, he and other seismologists say with utter confidence ... Death tolls will almost certainly be far higher. Two mid-size cities--Padang and Bengkulu--stand directly in harm's way.

  • Tsunami, Volcano Probably Not Related  The Guardian reports that "the earthquake and volcano that struck Indonesia lie on the same volatile fault line known as the Pacific ring of fire, but it was simply a tragic coincidence they occurred within a few hours of each other." A senior academic at Durham University points out to the paper that "for a volcano to erupt, molten rock comes to the surface in a process that takes hundreds of years" and that Merapi has erupted frequently in the past century, but never "just after an earthquake."

  • Germany: Our Warning Systems Worked Fine  Many sources have reported that components of the German-Indonesian Tsunami Warning System, the islands' early warning network, were vandalized or broken. The German Research Centre for Geosciences, which helped develop the GITWS, has issued a statement saying that "contrary to reports stating otherwise, all components of the tsunami early warning system worked properly. Reports of broken or even deliberately destroyed system units are entirely unfounded."

  • Actually, That System Is Far From Flawless  In The Wall Street Journal, Costas Synolakis writes that the GITWS has been "plagued by problems from the start. Sometimes deep ocean moorings would break off and the buoys would float off. Sometimes signals wouldn't trigger or relay properly." Synolakis notes that "the U.S. National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration has deployed a system that avoids these pitfalls... But Indonesia relied on untested technology and didn't build in the redundancy—multiple sensors in high-risk areas—common to other systems." Synolakis calls it "inexcusable that these problems persist today."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.