Mark A.R. Kleiman
The tsunami struck Sri Lanka without warning, three hours after the earthquake that generated the tsunami. Within fifteen minutes, seismologists knew the tsunami was coming, and started making phone calls to their friends in the countries at risk, but in the Indian Ocean region's lack of the sort of pre-arranged tsunami-warming system that covers the Pacific made it impossible to get word to the people at risk, even though a few minutes' head start would have been the difference between life and death for thousands of them.
No doubt the lack of a warning system reflects culpable nonfeasance on the part of the governments involved. (Yes, my libertarian friends, in the presence of tsunamis we're all statists.)
But if you're an American seismologist and your problem is to get a tsunami warning to folks in Sri Lanka, India, and Burma within a couple of hours, surely calling people in those countries and hoping that the governments will be able to improvise a warning system must be the wrong way to go.
Why not call CNN, the Associated Press, and Reuters? They're in the business of putting out information, and they put it out in a way that gets directly to senior public officials as well as to lots of ordinary folks who might live on, or have friends or relatives on, the relevant coastlines.
I promise you, a phone call from the International Tsunami Information Center saying "There's just been a Richter 9.0 quake in Sumatra and a big tsunami will hit the following places at the following times" will receive the undivided attention of any newsdesk in the world.
I would be worried that if there was a news media report there would be panic, but would that be worse than what did happen?