8.6 Quake Near Sumatra Indonesia and Tsunami Warning April 2012. Media Impact Analysis

A 8.6 Earthquake near Sumatra, a risk of ‘widespread destructive tsunami’

Indonesia was struck in 11 April 2012 by a massive quake at 2h38 pm local time, 10h38 am CET. It was estimated to be a 8.6-8.9 magnitude quake (depending of the sources). Epicenter was in the Indic Ocean, at some 500 kilometers West from North Sumatra island, 30 kilometers deep.

The quake was perceived by scared people from Indonesia, Singapore and other places. Twitter live testimonies emerged instantly and all the world was aware of the potential devastating effects of the quake. It was soon apparent that the direct casualties and damages provoked by the quake direct impact was rather limited. But affected people and people around the world feared was the indirect effects linked to an induced tsunami reaching Indonesia coasts first and thereafter other neighbour countries. A global tsunami warning was almost immediately launched. The images and the devastating effects of the tsunami that hit Indonesia and Thailand as a consequence of the massive December 26 2004 quake near Sumatra came to mind to all observers. Present quake was only slightly weaker in magnitude (8,9 Vs 9,1), but this one took place less close than the devastating 2004 tsunami.

You can check in the two figures below the origin of the 2012 quake and its comparison with 2004 quake. Figures are from Tha Wall Street Journal.

Source: WJS, US Geological Survey

Source: WSJ, US Geological Survey

The magnitude of the quake and the incertitude about the effects of the tsunami created also an alert in terms of global media attention. We will present in this post some results concerning immediate media impact, less than 10 hours after that the origin of the crisis.

At this moment, 10h pm CET, tsunami alert has been officially lifted, some 6 hours ago. There is apparently no risk of killing wages anywhere in the Pacific rim.

Update: Death Toll and Material Damages

Only Indonesia suffered direct fatalities and damages provocked by the tremors suffered in Sumatra. Initial report by the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) was just four people with minors injuries  and a 39-year-old men died of heart disease (BNPB, or Jakarta Globe). As relevant material loss, there was a broken bridge reported in West Aceh district.

The death toll was increased later to 5 people killed, all from heart attack or shock (The Australian)

Technical data about the earthquake

if you are looking for technical information about the 8.6 earthquake, you can check the poster provided by the US Geological Survey. You can access here the high resolution figure, will all details

You can also view the technical information about the earthquake provided by US Geological Survey. The US West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Information (WCATWC) reported it as a 8.7 magnitude earthquake, and did not call for a tsunami warning in US West coastal area.

Here you can find the first bulletin published by the US Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre. It launched a tsunami watch for the intention of all 28 countries in the region. The evaluation message did not announce a tsunami warning, bout opened the door for the appearance of a ‘widespread destructive tsunami. This is the full message:






ORIGIN TIME – 0839Z 11 APR 2012

















US Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, 11 April 2012 8h45 UTC (six minutes after the earthquake)

Media Coverage Evolution

In the next figure we show the evolution of total number of news about the risk of tsunami associated to the quake near Sumatra.

We have identified some 8,600 news about the crisis during the first 11 hours after the quake happened. Initial reaction by media, during the first 60 minutes, reached an amount of some 1,300 news.

The timing of the crisis in terms of media impact evolution can be better perceived in the next figure, where we present the number of news inside two hours periods.

Initial media reaction, within the first hour, reflects the ability from some newspapers to publish a quick note announcing the occurrence of the massive sea quake. Number of news is 1,300. In the next two hours, it is known that a tsunami alert is launched, and more details appear concerning direct experience of the temblors in different parts of the world, panic scenes mainly from people near Aceh. There is also a secong big earthquake above 8 points hitting the same area.. During this period some 2400 news were published. At the end of this period it is early morning in the East Coast of the United States. Fears and incertitude grow, but initial information arise diminishing the expectations of devastating tsunami wages. In the next two hours the flow of news stop its increase, and keeps stable around 2100 news. Different sources confirm that there are not high risks of a severe tsunami destruction, some 6-8 hours after the start of the crisis. The diminution of risks of devastation and casualties is translated into a sligh decrease of media attention in the following period (6-7 hours after).

The crisis almost vanishes as media crisis eight hours after the quake struck. The number of news drop dramatically and become a minor issue in the daily global media agenda.

Tsunami Warning. Media Impact By Countries

Initial hours after the tsunami alert was launched created anxiety as the devastating effects of the December 2004 tsunami provoked by an earthquake similar in power and location were probably constantly in mind by people and media from countries that paid a terrible prize in number of casualties. fears were sustained by the official tsunami alert mechanism and by the analysis of experts predicting 6 meters tall wages.

We have monitored the mentions in international media of all countries potentially affected by the tsunami. We present in the next figure our findings.

In order to facilitate the interpretation of the results, we have represented the media attention intensity using circles.

Highest intensity is black circle, that corresponds to more than 8,000 news during the first 24 hours after the earthquake hit the Indian Ocean. It is reached only by references to Indonesia (and Sumatra). Indonesia in its Sumatra island was the region most exposed to the risks and devastation associated to the tsunami. Indonesia was also the country that suffered the most in 2004 tsunami.

The second country most present in the news was Sri Lanka. It can be appreaciated that it was also the one geographically most exposed to eventual tsunami impact.

The other countries most affected by the tsunami alert, as measured by international media impact were India and Thailand. Thailand was also serverely hit by 2004 tsunami, specially in the touristic area of Phuket.

The other countries receiving more than 1,000 news were countries neighbouring Sumatra: Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. Japan is included also in this category, even if there was no direct risks of tsunami damages. It shows the impact in the media of the recent devastating tsunami suffered by japan in March 2011.

It is interesting to compare and complement our results with the analysis provided by Radian 6, who also carried out a social media impact analysis of the tsunami warning crisis. The graph by Radian 6 below shows the geographical references in social media (basically Twitter messages) linked to the tsunami. They find also that main reference is Indonesia. It is followed by mentions to Thailand, Singapore, India and Malaysia, like our results based in traditional media analysis. References to Sri Lanka locations do not appear in their list.

Source: Radian 6, Indian Ocean Earthquake Triggers Social Media Shockwages 

Indonesia Earthquake 2012, linking to Indonesia Tsunami 2004 and other disasters

Media coverage of major disasters and crisis events require always terms of reference as part of the news storyline. The initial media coverage of disasters is always accompanied with recalls about past events similar in nature or in the extent of devastation. Comparing the present crisis with past notorious crisis serves to provide a perspective to the readers of the size of the crisis that is being covered. It may serve to trigger anxiety and media interest if the last crisis ‘ranks near the top’ of the previous recorded episodes. This may happen in some cases, specially in the initial stages of a crisis where there is few available information about the exact impact of the crisis

The specific past events chosen by journalists to compare with the present ones provide also an indirect key of lecture of how media is understanding the size and the extent of the present crisis.

We have performed some ‘comparing to previous crisis’ analysis in some cases in this blog. For instance, our analysis show that media was really reluctant to compare the Fukushima nuclear disaster to the previous worst reference, Chernobyl, even if the Japanese case became eventually the worst one in records (See the entry: Chernobyl and Three Mile Island References in News About Fukushima Nuclear Crisis). In another different framework, we showed that when a new sex scandal emerges in the US media, the case Bill Clinton-Lewinski is systematically used as canonical term of reference (The Reputational Curse of Political Sex Scandals: The Impact of Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn Scandals on Bill Clinton (and Monica Lewinsky) Reputation).

We have monitored the references to recent killing earthquakes and tsunamis within the context of the Sumatra April 2012 Earthquake media coverage.

Our findings show that, as expected, all regards are turned towards 26 December 2004 tragedy produced by the Indian Ocean earthquake that eventually killed some 230,000 people. This is a y far natural reaction, as the 2012 earthquake was really similar in its epicentre location and in its magnitude (8.6 Vs 9.0).

More relevant is to look into the details, to check out which locations of the 2004 tsunami are mentioned as references fro explaining that tragedy. We find that the main single reference is Aceh, the province in Indonesia that concentrated the vast majority of victims produced by the tsunami. Aceh receives some 6,000 mentions. Second reference is the country, Indonesia, with 4780. The region, more than the country, is creating the label associated to the 2004 tragedy, even if the tsunami affected other areas in Sumatra.

Next three references are three countries in the Indic Ocean: Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. Thai tourist resort Phuket comes next, with some 2,600 mentions.

We find that the number of mentions received by the four countries in 2012 crisis is perfectly in line with the estimated number of nationals killed by the 2004 disaster: Indonesia (167,800), Sri Lanka (35,300), India (18,000) and Thailand (8,200).

2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Death Toll and Casualties

Country where
deaths occurred
Confirmed Estimated Injured Missing Displaced
Indonesia 130,736 167,799 n/a 37,063 500,000+
Sri Lanka 35,322 35,322 21,411 n/a 516,150
 India 12,405 18,045 n/a 5,640 647,599
 Thailand 5,395 8,212 8,457 2,817 7,000
Somalia 78 289 n/a n/a 5,000
Myanmar (Burma) 61 400–600 45 200 3,200
 Maldives 82 108 n/a 26 15,000+
Malaysia 68 75 299 6 n/a
 Tanzania 10 13 n/a n/a n/a
Seychelles 3 3 57 n/a 200
 Bangladesh 2 2 n/a n/a n/a
 South Africa 2 2 n/a n/a n/a
 Yemen 2 2 n/a n/a n/a
 Kenya 1 1 2 n/a n/a
Madagascar n/a n/a n/a n/a 1,000+
Total ~184,167 ~230,273 ~125,000 ~45,752 ~1.69 million

Source: 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, Wikipedia

Our results suggest that the 2004 massive tsunami tends to be labelled by the media as the ‘Aceh tsunami’, which also means that this region in Indonesia will be always associated popularly to the disaster. This is part of the negative place branding associated to this name.

By comparison, we find that the references to the more recent and also devastating 2011 tsunami in Tohoku Japan are rather limited. Just some 850 news, seven times less than references to 2004 Tsunami Aceh. Media attention was clearly focused in the risks of tsunami destruction and used basically the references to 2004 tsunami.

Our results show also that this earthquake has not oriented international media attention to previous earthquake disasters similar in magnitude power or with a massive death toll. Mentions to 2010 killing earthquake in Haiti are marginal, as they appeared only in 280 news. References to massive earthquake in Chile are even more limited. The storyline of media coverage of this natural disaster was completely oriented to tsunamis, and not to earthquakes, even if finally only an earthquake happened.

Annex 1: Warning Systems, smartphones and social media

We include in this post some analysis and reflections about the early warning systems deployed to preserve lives in coastal areas potentially affected by tsunamis. This one was one of the hard lessons learned from 2004 tsunami disaster. We put this information as ‘annex’ in our post, as our task here is just a compilation of information coming from external sources. We do not provide additional information based in our media impact analysis. We want nevertheless include this external information as it add value for some of the readers interested in communication crisis in the context of natural emergencies. We just select some excerpts from these externe as such, mentioning the source, and we will not provide additional analysis or interpretation.

Nandasa, a resident living on the beach in Rathmalana, a suburb just south of Colombo, expressed a similar sentiment. “In 2004, when waters receded before the tsunami came, people took it for a joke, they went out to collect shells. This time no one was taking things lightly, everyone knew what to do and what to expect.”

Still, there were some lapses. As coastal roads were closed, others became jammed with traffic, mobile networks became overloaded and petrol stations in coastal areas ran out of fuel, leaving many people stranded.

But overall, the harsh lessons from 2004 seem to have been learned.

Old Tsunami Nightmares, New Warning Systems in Sri Lanka, IPS News

Tsunami warning sirens blared Wednesday in parts of Indonesia, and the other steps taken show that “governments are more prepared,” said CNN weather anchor Mari Ramos.

“There are sirens in place along coastal communities. There are buoys in the ocean to measure water level changes. There is better communication among government agencies, countries and the media. The word gets out much more quickly, and that helps saves lives,” Ramos said.

However, “the number of measuring devices in the Indian Ocean is tiny compared to the Pacific. It’s a start, but more are needed.”

Tsunami scare tests new life-saving procedures, CNN

“When the police jeep began announcing the evacuations, we were already on the move,” Ajeemal, a resident of the village of Sainathimaruthu, in the eastern Kalmunai region, told IPS.

In 2004 there was no such warning and the monstrous waves left 30,000 dead, a million displaced and a reconstruction bill of over three billion dollars.

“This time people knew what to expect, they knew they had to get away from the beach and do that fast,” Ajeemal said.

In double-quick time, the Meteorological Department issued a warning: “An earthquake near Sumatra Island at 02.08pm (Sri Lanka time) today 11.04.2012 has generated a tsunami that will affect Sri Lanka, those living near and along the Eastern and Southern coastal regions are advised to evacuate to safer places immediately.”

The warning came despite the United States government’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre failing to issue a formal alert, instead limiting its update on the earthquake to a ‘tsunami watch’. However, local radio and television stations picked up the warning, which was also disseminated by SMS alerts and Sri Lanka’s small but active Twitter community.

Those on the coast, like Ajeemal, were advised by the police to move at least 500 metres inland. “We were asked to remain there till around six (o’clock in the evening),” Ajeemal said. The warning period was later extended when aftershocks hit the island about two hours after the initial quake hit Indonesia’s western coast of Sumatra, in Banda Aceh.

“Almost everyone has moved out of the coast, no one is here,” said Reverend G S K Herath, an Anglican priest from the southern town of Matara. He told IPS that security forces and the police had moved into the areas being evacuated to guard against looting.

Old Tsunami Nightmares, New Warning Systems in Sri Lanka, IPS News

Suharjono, head of the earthquakes department at Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), said authorities had known a tsunami could hit 50 minutes after Wednesday’s quake.

“We also knew which parts of the coast to watch,” he said, explaining that offshore buoys send signals to monitoring stations in Indonesia and beyond.

James Goff, director of the Australia-Pacific Tsunami Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, said the alert was a “decent test” of the Indian Ocean tsunami warning system, an ambitious network of tidal gauges, deep ocean buoys and seismic monitors modelled on the decades-old Pacific model completed after the 2004 tsunami.

Wednesday’s quake was felt as far afield as Thailand, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Reunion Island, Sri Lanka, and Burma.

India said it issued a tsunami warning eight minutes after the quake.

“This was the first incident after the 2004 tsunami and we handled it extremely well,” said Namrata Majumdar, an official at the country’s disaster management centre.

Sri Lankan authorities said the alert had exposed serious problems of traffic management and the inability of mobile phone networks to cope in an emergency, although coastal residents appeared to be well prepared.

In Thailand, where social networking has been growing rapidly, the National Disaster Warning Centre’s head Somsak Khaosuwan said the internet had played a “significant role” in disseminating information.

“We thought it went extremely well yesterday,” said Denis Okello, information officer at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jakarta, commenting on Indonesia’s response.

He said sirens warning people to move to higher ground had been activated by local officials receiving SMS messages and emails from BMKG.

In a nation with one of the world’s highest number of phone texters – and the globe’s fastest growing major market for BlackBerry smartphones – telephone alerts are also an important way for the BMKG to spread its warnings.

“I think some people got text messages, but we didn’t get any at the school because the phone lines were down for some time after the quake,” said Nunik Nurwanpi, a 20-year-old primary school teacher in Banda Aceh.

“We all knew what to do anyway because we’ve had regular tsunami drills since the big one in 2004,” she said, adding that children were evacuated from the school and moved to higher ground when sirens blared.

Tsunami warnings test post-2004 system, SBS Australia

In theory, national governments should issue tsunami watches and warnings. For sure, they should be the only ones issuing evacuation orders. But social media are upending government control.

Sri Lanka is not located in an earthquake zone. So when those of us who felt the tremors, our first reaction was to doubt our senses. People texted each other to verify. In my case, I learned that the tremor I felt was caused by an earthquake from a tweet within 10-15 minutes of the event. My first reaction was to check the magnitude and depth of the quake from the best scientific source I knew: the United States Geological Service. My first tweet, based on confirming the event at the USGS site, was at 1429 local time (20 minutes after the earthquake)

I sent several tweets, sticking pretty closely to USGS data. Unlike in 2004, the phones were working (within networks, though performance was patchy in locations, especially near the coast line) and Internet was not slowed down noticeably. Calls from one network to another were subject to congestion delays, suggesting that the interconnection links had been inadequately dimensioned.

Tweets kept flying. I and several others active in social media kept emphasizing that only a “watch” existed, that people should be alert and not do anything for now.


Whatever the theory says, social media and the Internet have changed the conditions of warning irrevocably. Social media appear to be disseminating information about impending hazards extremely fast. The government looks even more inept in these conditions, when they wait for too long to issue (unnecessary) evacuation orders. It is even more important in these conditions to improve internal processing of information and decision making so that the government can issue unambiguous directives based on the best science available.

Even more important is the education of various authorities such as those running the trains, supplying electricity, etc. about the appropriate responses. Those responsible for schools, offices, hotels, exhibitions, etc. should be educated and if necessary directed to desist from rash closures and suspensions. Offices, especially high rises, are safer than a congested road should a tsunami come.

The government’s assertion that tsunami warnings worked is dubious. It is true that most people knew about the potentially tsunamigenic earthquake within an hour of its occurrence, which from the perspective of avoiding loss of life is very good. However, it is doubtful whether the government can claim credit for that awareness. When it came to issuance of warnings, evacuation orders, etc. the government earned a failing grade. Not enough authoritative direction was provided in time. Uncoordinated actions such as shutting down public services, closing workplaces, etc. caused considerable inconvenience to the public. More than that, the throwing of thousands of people on to the roads when transport was shutting down made them more vulnerable, in the event a tsunami did arrive.

In the age of social media, people will learn of distant hazards independently of government. What government must focus on is helping them respond on the most intelligent way, based on the best science. On this front, much remains to be done.

Tsunami risk reduction in the age of Twitter, R & D Mag

Another readings about smartphone use in disasters (not related with Indonesia earthquake:

Mobile phones and crisis zones: how text messaging can help streamline humanitarian aid delivery, Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, Issue 53, March 2012.

 IBA Launches Smartphone Crisis App to Help Companies, Schools, and Government Better Prepare For Emergencies, Disaster Recovery Journal, May 4, 2012.

Annex 2: a huge earthquake, but a weak tsunami. Why?

In this section we provide the explanation why this 2012 earthquake did not create a strong tsunami, even if it was remarkably similar to the destructive 2004 tsunami. Again, we present exclusively external sources, as this is not a matter of media impact analysis.

We present first a divulgative explanation provided by CNN about tsunami formation, and why this earthquake did not create a major tsunami.

CNN Video. How Tsunamis are formed and why we had not a tsunami with 2012 Sumatra earthquake.

Annex 3: Videos about the devastating power of tsunami 2004 Sumatra Aceh and tsunami 2011 Japan

In this section we show some selected videos from amateur shootage as direct witness of the action and devastating power of tsunamis. We refer to videos capturing 2004 destruction and death. Perceiving again the terror and the dimension of the tragedy is a way to better understand the probable reaction of people in the areas surrounding the 2012 earthquake epicentre and the warning of a possible ‘widespread destructive tsunami’. For sure, for all people in Indonesia, Thailand or Sri Lanka having a direct experience of the 2004 tsunami, this April 2012 alert created strong feelings. I think that panic and anxiety describes quite well emotions and reactions. Terrible memories have probably acted as a protective reaction againsts new risks. Some people outside the affected area could consider that local citizens and authorities have overreacted against the new alarm created by the new 2012 massive earthquake.

The extraordinary dimension of 2004 destruction and harm helps us to understand their suffering and the weight that it still has in their memories. This is in a sense a way to pay tribute to the victims and survivors. This is also a way to give thanks to people that perticipate in the documentary that we present below, being ready to renew their sufferings as means to show all the world the risks of this natural disaster and the burden suffered by the affected countries. Some readers of this blog may consider that I am proposing a distateful measure, which only fruit is to satisfy insane curiosity. I can understand such a reaction and I fully respect it, but it is clearly not our intention.

There is a plethora of videos in Youtube about tsunamis, creating calling effects on potential viewers. The results is that many highle viewed videos are just fake, manipulations or cut and paste stories and images. This creates a sour feeling in people looking for information about videos.

We have selected the series of videos that contain an extraordinary collection of amateur footages by direct witness and then also victims of the tsunamis. Many appeared first upload by authors and received many views. English TV Channel 4 was engaged in the ambitious project of trying to know the story behind those videos. They created an extraordinary documentary presented five years after the tragedy, an unvaluable documentary that will be used as reference.

You can check it at its source, at Channel4. Apparently, there is no option to access to it in many countries, like mine. So, we propose the consultation of the free available versions in Youtube. As they are divided in sections of 10 minutes, it allow to access more easily the sections that may be more interesting for you.

Evidently, even eight years later, please be aware that images are highly distressing. There are images of people being caught by the waters, and dead bodies.

Part I. Presenting the individual cases. Amateur videos, the day before (Christmas Day). The earthquake, 7:59 am local time.

Part II. The earthquake experienced in land. The tsunami in Banda Aceh, Indonesia

Part III. Tsunami in Phuket, Thailand. Tsunami in Khao Lak, Thailand

Part IV. Tsunami in Kho Phi Phi Island, Tsunami. Tsunami in Tangalle, Sri Lanka

Part V. Tsunami aftermath in Indonesia, Thailand. Destruction, survivors, looking for relatives.

Part VI. Tsunami aftermath in Indonesia, Thailand. Destruction, survivors, looking for relatives.

Part VII. Tsunami aftermath in Sri Lanka. Mouring. Live after the tsunami for survivors.


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