Praise for nations' tsunami emergency response

01/03/2010 17:57

WELLINGTON (AFP) — Officials in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands praised emergency authorities Monday for their handling of the tsunami warning following the massive earthquake in Chile.

But they slammed the many "stupid" members of the public who ignored the warnings for putting themselves and others at risk.

Alerts about a potentially destructive tsunami were issued throughout the region after the 8.8-magnitude quake struck just of the coast of Chile and in many areas people were evacuated from low-lying coastal areas. Related article: Search for Chile quake survivors

The worst fears were not realised with the resulting tsunami causing surges less than half a metre high in most places on Sunday New Zealand time, although there were reports in French Polynesia of damage from a series of two-metre (more than six feet) waves and one localised four-metre surge.

The warning was the third regionwide tsunami alert in five months and authorities said Monday lessons had been learned following criticism they had been slow to act in the past.

"It's a huge step up from where we've been," New Zealand's Civil Defence Minister John Carter said.

"Civil defence structures in the regions, along with the police, the fire service and the coastguard, and other authorities, all responded particularly well," he said.

In September last year a tsunami triggered by an 8.0-magnitude quake smashed into Samoa, American Samoa and northern Tonga, killing 186 people and sparking a regionwide tsunami alert.

Authorities in New Zealand and some Pacific Islands were criticised for their slowness in getting warnings out to the public, and there were problems again in October when a series of three quakes with magnitudes of more than 7.0 centred near Vanuatu triggered another regional alert.

But although happy with the response of emergency services after the Chile quake, New Zealand's Carter said some "stupid" people were lucky to been unhurt.

"Amid reports of people going to the beach or spectating, we also had reports of people getting caught in the powerful water surges," Carter said.

"There was definitely potential for loss of life in our waters and it is a credit to the team who managed this event that didn?t happen."

In Australia, many surfers and swimmers ignored warnings of surges and dangerous currents, despite the early warning system working well, experts said.

"A tsunami warning is a very important public announcement -- it is not made without a lot of careful consideration. Sadly, the public did not seem to agree," said James Goff, co-director of the Australian Tsunami Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.

Goff said more public education was needed to ensure people took tsunami warnings seriously.

In the Fijian capital Suva, many people gathered near the sea wall despite being warned away by emergency services.

But in Samoa and Tonga, with the memory of September's disastrous tsunami still fresh, residents were quick to flee for higher ground before dawn as sirens sounded.

"The public did not respond well in regards to that September 29 warning. This time around it was the complete opposite," Samoan Meteorological Office head Mulipola Ausetalia Titimaea told Radio New Zealand.