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TSUNAMI OFFICIALS SAY WARNING SYSTEM FAILED
By KRISTEN GELINEAU, Associated Press
Rescuers searching islands ravaged by a tsunami off western Indonesia raised the death toll to 370 Thursday as more corpses were wrapped in body bags or buried by neighbors. Officials said hundreds of missing people may have been swept out to sea.

Questions mounted over whether an elaborate warning system had failed.

Survivors said they had almost no warning that the 10-foot wall of water was bearing down on them, despite the laying of a sophisticated network of alarm buoys off the Sumatran coast.
The expensive warning system was instituted after the 2004 Asian tsunami, which killed at least 168,000 people in Indonesia alone. An official tsunami warning was issued after Monday’s 7.7-magnitude quake but it either came too late or did not reach the communities in most danger.

A lot of land is still underwater after the tsunami.

Fears were growing for hundreds still missing after a huge wave triggered by a powerful earthquake Monday hit the Mentawais off the west coast of Sumatra. Disaster response officials said bodies were being found on beaches and coastal areas in the Mentawai island chain, which took the full force of the tsunami as it washed away entire villages.

“Ten minutes after the quake we heard a sound just like an explosion from outside, it was then we realized there was a tsunami,” said 20-year-old housewife Chandra on North Pagai, one of the two worst-hit islands.

Officials say a multimillion-dollar warning system installed after a monster 2004 quake and tsunami broke down one month ago because it was not being properly maintained. A German official at the project disputed that, saying the system was working but the quake’s epicenter was too close to the Mentawai islands for residents to get the warning before the killer wave hit.

Search and rescue teams, kept away for days by stormy seas and bad weather, found roads and beaches with swollen corpses lying on them, according to Harmensyah, head of the West Sumatra provincial disaster management center.

A member of a rescue team looks out at North Pagai island as his ship delivers aid to survivors.

“They believe many, many of the bodies were swept to sea,” he said. In a rare bright spot, an 18-month-old baby was found alive in a clump of trees on Pagai Selatan island on Wednesday. Relief coordinator Hermansyah said a 10-year-old boy found the toddler and that both his parents were dead.

On Pagai Seatandug island, the wave deposited giant chunks of coral and rocks the size of people into the places where homes once stood in Pro Rogat village, one of the hardest-hit areas with 65 dead. Villagers huddled under tarps in the rain and talked about how many who had fled to the hills were too afraid to return home.

Mud and palm fronds covered the body of the village’s pastor, 60-year-old Simorangkir. His corpse lay on the ground, partially zipped into a body bag. Police and relatives took turns pushing a shovel through the sodden dirt next to him to create his final resting place. Fisherman Joni Sageru, 30, recalled being jolted awake by the quake and running outside to hear screams to run to higher ground on his island of Pagai Selaton.

“First, we saw sea water recede far away, then when it returned, it was like a big wall running toward our village,” Sageru said. “Suddenly trees, houses and all things in the village were sucked into the sea and nothing was left.”

Officials questioned whether the tsunami warning system had functioned properly. The chief of Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysic Agency, Fauzi, said the special buoys that detect sudden changes in water level broke down last month because of inexperienced operators and poor maintenance.

However, Joern Lauterjung, head of the German-Indonesia Tsunami Early Warning Project for the Potsdam-based GeoForschungs Zentrum, said a warning did go out five minutes after the quake, but the tsunami hit so fast no one was warned in time. “The early warning system worked very well, it can be verified,” he said.

He added that only one sensor of 300 had not been working, and had no effect on the system’s operation.
Destruction: This aerial photograph shows the remains of a village that was swept away by the tsunami in North Pagai island, one of the Mentawai islands.