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MIT/WHOI Graduate Leads the World's Tsunami Awareness Program

Source: Oceanus Magazine

Laura Kong got the first phone call shortly after 3 p.m. on Christmas Day. Colleagues from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) informed her that a magnitude-8 earthquake had occurred somewhere in the eastern Indian Ocean. It is standard procedure for the team to call Kong—director of the International Tsunami Information Center (ITIC) in Honolulu, Hawaii—whenever there is a quake of magnitude 6.5 or larger.

An hour later, she got a call from Charles McCreery, director of PTWC. The earthquake was much larger and big enough to raise concerns for a tsunami. But without tsunami-monitoring instruments in the Indian Ocean, they couldn’t know for sure. Staff at the center had tried to inform their Indonesian colleagues without success.

“The center had a reading that suggested a tsunami was possible,” said Kong. “But there were no protocols for automated, efficient delivery of the message. In that part of the world, there is almost no infrastructure for assessing the local risk, deciding how to react, and getting people out of the way.”

Kong, a 1990 graduate of the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Science and Engineering, was one of the first people in the world to learn the magnitude of the underwater earthquake off the coast of Indonesia. But she had to wait, like the rest of us, to know the full scale of the catastrophic tsunami waves. She got the news from a Reuters news wire report about four hours after the first phone call.

Kong became director of ITIC in 2001, after spending her post-WHOI years working in operations at the tsunami warning center and conducting research at the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Geophysics, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, and the University of Tokyo’s Earthquake Research Institute. She studied marine seismology in the 1980s with then-WHOI and MIT scientists Michael Purdy and Sean Solomon.

Taking steps to avert another disaster

As director of ITIC, Kong’s job is a blend of administrator, scientist, diplomat, and teacher. She administers the activities to the 26-nation International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific. She promotes technology transfer and tsunami and seismic data sharing among agencies and nations, while recommending improvements to the warning system. Her group also serves as a clearinghouse for tsunami information and educational materials needed by the public and decision-makers.

Kong participates in the U.S. National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program, but her principal allegiance is to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). ITIC was established in 1965 in the wake of the 1960 Chile tsunami and the 1964 Alaska tsunami, the last to strike the U.S. mainland.

As world leaders have declared that nations must take steps to avoid another catastrophe like the Dec. 26 Sumatra tsunami, Kong and her staff have been hunkered down. They are trying to capitalize on their Pacific Ocean experiences to help design a process to establish and implement a proposed Indian Ocean network. UNESCO and its emissaries such as Kong have been busy organizing meetings to unify and coordinate the global response to tsunami hazards.

The first meeting, held March 3-8 at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, brought experts together to share technical information and to discuss and develop the implementation of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System. The 270 delegates from 45 countries established the International Coordination Group for the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System and drafted a proposal for a tsunami warning system.

A second meeting will be held April 14 to 17 in Mauritius and will bring together high-level government officials and donors to discuss funding and to agree on the implementation requirements and work plan.

A new wave of activity

Since the December 26 tsunami, the traffic in Kong’s e-mail box has risen from 10 messages per day to hundreds, with inquiries and information from students, journalists, concerned citizens, and officials from around the world. ITIC maintains an e-mail listserv for scientists and tsunami monitoring specialists that in the first month afterward collected nearly 400 postings from scientists sharing data, computer models, and other observations.

“The listserv has become a great coordinating mechanism for the community,” Kong noted, “especially for coordinating scientifically based post-tsunami surveys which are providing the crucial data for assessing tsunami risk and developing other mitigation programs.”

“We are trying to lead by example for the whole world,” said Kong. “We’re trying to help governments understand what a tsunami warning system is, what it isn’t, and what’s involved in setting one up.”

Originally published: March 30, 2005