In late September, the Indonesian province of Sulawesi was hit by a strong earthquake, followed by a tsunami that devastated coastal cities in the region. The death toll reached 1,200 in matter of days and many infrastructures especially in the town of Palu were either destroyed or badly damaged. Scenes of despair were beamed across the world as emergency personnel scrambled to rescue those trapped underneath the rubble, while survivors struggled to cope with their losses. Looting was also reported in some areas as supplies of food, water and fuel became scarce.

As the country grieved, questions also emerged regarding the disaster warning mechanism used by the authorities that lifted a tsunami warning, 34 minutes after the initial earthquake. Some Indonesians vent their frustration on social networking sites and accused the geophysics agency, BMKG, of mishandling the data and claimed that lives could have been saved if the warning was kept in place. Despite this, the agency defended its move, saying that the warning only ended after the tsunami hit. The sentiment was agreed by experts who said the timing could have made very little difference. This is because earthquakes are rather complicated and the recent one in Palu was also highly unusual as the tsunami was generated from seismic activities on land. Despite this, some still expressed worries on the state of the warning system that has been in operation following the deadly tsunami in Aceh in 2004.

As mentioned by the head of BMKG, the lack of data concerning the latest tsunami is something that the authorities must evaluate, and he was right in saying so. There have been reports that some of the tidal buoys (used to monitor changes in sea level) were not working due to vandalism, causing them to miss the giant waves as only a “insignificant” 6 cm wave was recorded. The latest mishap is a reminiscent of another event in October 2010 when the early warning system failed due to operational difficulties. It had only been activated for two years before it fell into a state of disrepair one month prior to the earthquake.

Although the Indonesian government has promised to improve its early warning mechanisms since the Aceh tsunami in 2004, the latest event in Palu is a clear indication that the present system is still inadequate and does not fulfill its supposed role. The frank admission by the Indonesian national disaster agency (BNPB) that some of the 60 tidal buoys were broken since 2012 is also a grim reminder that bureaucracy and funding issues are hampering efforts in procuring potential life-saving measures and equipment. Co-ordination and co-operation between various agencies are also critical in this regard as such systems requires various expertise. While the immediate task is on rescue and relief efforts, policymakers should also begin to figure out ways to ensure a functional early warning system for a country that is prone to such natural calamities.

The following are the key events that have been reported by SAFEY during the earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi (all times local/ Indonesian Central Standard Time, WITA):

  • A magnitude 7.7 earthquake was reported in Sulawesi on 28 September. It was followed by a tsunami that devastated many coastal areas with Palu being the worst-affected city.
  • Initial alert (red with SMS) by SAFEY at 18:20 (GMT+8) on 28 September
    • The quake struck at 18:02 and a red alert containing basic information was sent out by 18 minutes later.
  • First update (red with SMS) by SAFEY at 18:39 (GMT+8) on 28 September
    • A red alert was issued as the country’s geophysics agency, BMKG issued a tsunami warning following the quake at 18:07 and again at 18:27.
  • Second update by SAFEY (yellow) at 19:33 (GMT+8) on 28 September
    • The tsunami warning was lifted between 18:30-19:00 by BMKG and the decision was criticized. This was reflected in a SAFEY alert based on latest information available.
  • Third update (red with SMS) by SAFEY at 22:12 (GMT+8) on 28 September
    • Reports indicated that a tsunami has hit the town of Palu. This was despite the lifting of a tsunami warning few hours prior.
  • Fourth update (yellow) by SAFEY at 08:23 (GMT+8) on 29 September
    • Continuous coverage of the event by SAFEY, highlighting travel disruptions in Palu and around Sulawesi in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake.
  • Multiple updates by SAFEY between 30 September- 4 October
    • SAFEY continued to report on the aftershocks that happened following the main quake on 28 September. Related developments including looting that broke out in some areas as well as travel disruptions were also highlighted.