Tuesday 4 January 2005

Geologist gave repeated alerts

And so the New Year starts...

A leading geologist repeatedly warned Indonesian officials that an earthquake and tsunami would soon strike their shores, it emerged this weekend.

Kerry Sieh, professor of geology at California Institute of Technology, has been studying the region for nearly a decade.

Last July he became so concerned at the likely massive loss of life that he printed and distributed 5,000 posters and brochures around some of the islands later hit by the earthquake.

He addressed church congregations and schools to tell people what to do in an earthquake. His main advice was for people to live away from shorelines.

Sieh had been due to meet Indonesian officials last month to discuss a wider education programme but the meeting was cancelled at the last minute because the officials said they had no money.

Two weeks ago he expressed his fear that a big earthquake and tsunami were overdue in the region at a conference in San Francisco.

Sieh said this weekend: “No one can predict exactly when an earthquake will happen but it was clear that this area was at relatively high risk and such an event would definitely happen one day.

“We told them it would kill people, wreck infrastructure and destroy livelihoods. But our warnings were falling on deaf ears.

“My team and I decided to bypass the national and local government and start warning people directly. I hope our efforts saved some lives.”

Ten years ago Sieh installed monitors on islands off Sumatra. His research focused on the Mentawai Islands, a chain 100 miles south of the epicentre of the Boxing Day quake. Communication has not been re-established with the islands since the tsunami.

At his speech to the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, he pointed out that, historically, such events have occurred in clusters.

Sieh believes this means another quake could be on the way: “There is some evidence that the stresses on the tectonic plates south of the epicentre may now have increased and raised the chances of another major earthquake.”

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