SUVA, Fiji (Mar 2) - If we have a tsunami such as the one that devastated southern Asia last year, we’d better hope it doesn’t strike at night or on a weekend. For while we might have thought that Fiji was well covered by the comprehensive Pacific system that links us to early warning centers in Hawai´i, Australia and New Zealand, that protection is at best patchy.

The system depends, it seems, on personnel in one of the centers mentioned making contact with their counterparts here -- who may or may not be on duty at the time.

That’s because the relevant office here operates from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. An emergency call, for example, on a Sunday morning would most likely go unheard. For at a time when minutes could save lives, the key people who need to know are likely to be in church. So a tsunami or earthquake inconsiderate enough to happen outside of those hours would be utterly devastating for a country unwarned of impending disaster -- just as we saw in southern Asia.

Indeed, it’s not too difficult to imagine the rest of the world collecting money for the Fiji Tsunami Appeal if that were to happen. Clearly, this is a risk we should not have to take. Natural disasters, as we know all too well, can and do happen. And they don’t keep office hours.

As always, the reason for the restricted hours at our own warning center is lack of money. But it shouldn’t empty the public purse to make allowances for at least a skeleton staff to be on duty at all times with the facility to make contact with key personnel as and when necessary.

A duty roster could competently cover the protection requirements of the community 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That would work tolerably well for the main islands and those with reliable telephone contact. But, as today’s front-page report points out, the people in the outer islands who rely on, for example, radio-telephones are very definitely at risk.

Few have reliable and permanent communication channels and these communities run a very real risk of being taken by surprise by a tidal wave or an earthquake. And we’ve recently seen the potential outcome. Could it happen here? The answer has to be a resounding "Yes."

March 3, 2005

FijiSUN: http://www.sun.com.fj/

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