An early warning system that might have prevented some deaths in the tsunami that hit an Indonesian island on Friday has been stalled in the testing phase for years. The high-tech system was meant to replace a system set up after an earthquake and tsunami killed nearly 250,000 people in the region in 2004. But inter-agency wrangling and delays in getting just $69,000 to complete the project mean the system hasn't moved beyond a prototype developed with $3 million from the US National Science Foundation. It is too late for central Sulawesi, where walls of water up to 20 feet high and a magnitude 7.5 earthquake killed at least 832 people in the cities of Palu and Donggala, tragically highlighting the weaknesses of the existing warning system and low public awareness about how to respond to warnings, per the AP.
More than half the 2004 tsunami's victims were in the Indonesian province of Aceh, and a concerted international effort was launched to improve tsunami warning capabilities, particularly in the Indian Ocean and for Indonesia, one of world's most earthquake- and tsunami-prone countries. A sizable earthquake off Sumatra island in 2016 that caused panic in the coastal city of Padang revealed that none of the buoys costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each were working. The backbone of Indonesia's present tsunami warning system is a network of 134 tidal gauge stations augmented by land-based seismographs, sirens in about 55 locations, and a system to disseminate warnings by text message. (The AP has more on the current system.)