Tsunami warnings went out in southern India, Thailand and Sri Lanka, where millions are still traumatized by last weekend's devastating waves. India's warning said the wave could hit within an hour - but hours later with no major waves, Science Minister Kapil Sibal said it was incorrect and dismissed fears of a new strike as "hogwash."
By that time, thousands of people had made a desperate run for higher ground in southern Tamil Nadu state, where more than half of India's 7,300 deaths Sunday occurred. Hundreds of refugees fled relief camps set up near the coastline, jostling to get into trucks and other vehicles, one police constable said.
Gandhimathi, 40-year-old woman who like many in the region uses only one name, said authorities told her to leave her home, a mile from the beach in the town of Nagappattinam.
"We got into a truck and fled," she said. "We do not know where to go or where to spend the night. We took only a few clothes and left behind all of our belongings, everything we had. They do not know when we will be able to go back."
Police ordered hundreds of vehicles carrying relief supplies and rescue workers not to enter the town. Similar warnings were issued for India's southern Kerala state and the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
The false alarm highlighted the lack of an organized tsunami warning system in other parts of the world. Experts have said such a system would have helped save lives after Sunday's 9.0 magnitude quake off the coast of Sumatra. The tremor sent 500 mph waves racing across the Indian Ocean, hitting unsuspecting residents thousands of miles away in Sri Lanka, India and East Africa.
The fears of a new tsunami were apparently sparked by a string of earthquakes in the previous 24 hours, but an earthquake expert at the University of Hong Kong, Jason Ali, said they were around 1,000 times less powerful than Sunday's and probably not big enough to produce tsunamis. "It's probably going to have negligible impact," he said.
Sibal, India's science minister, said the misinformation had come from a U.S. research group in Portland, Ore., called Terra Research.
"(They) ... claimed they have some sensors and equipment through which they suggest there was a possibility of an earthquake," Sibal said at a televised press conference. "So, on the basis of this communication, for anyone to reach a conclusion that a tsunami will hit the eastern coast of India is unscientific, hogwash and should be discarded."
Terra Research and Consulting Services is run by Larry Park, 46, who describes himself as an earthquake forecaster and stood by his prediction. He said Thursday a quake-spawned tsunami still could happen.
"There is a good chance of a quake coming, yes, we've got a few days' window," he said.
According to a lengthy discourse on his Web site, www.terrareseaRch.net, Park said he believes that conventional earthquake observations are misguided and conventional seismographs to measure activity in faults are inadequate.
Instead, Park contends his equipment can predict earthquakes in both known and unseen faults by measuring their resonance, or vibrations, and how they effect the elasticity of the Earth's crust. This resonant energy has its origins in what he describes as a huge supply of "ether" of the universe that he believes permeates everything and creates specific energy waves that are not accounted for by current theories of physics.
India's Sibal said the Indian Meteorological Department came across a Web site warning by Terra Research. He said the group claimed it has the systems and equipment to forecast occurrence of earthquakes.
He said the U.S. office of the Indian Space Research Organization subsequently contacted the group and discussed the issue in detail with its scientists. Although there is no proven method to predict short term earthquakes, Sibal said, his ministry still decided to pass on the information to the home ministry.
He said he was never consulted before the home ministry issued its warning, based on an opinion of a lesser known group.
A.K. Rastogi, a senior home ministry official, said the warning was issued as a precaution. "There was no need to panic. We issued the alert as a precautionary measure," Rastogi told reporters.
After an initial alert, Sri Lanka's military later told residents to be vigilant but not to panic, while coastal villagers climbed onto rooftops or sought high ground. "There is total confusion here," said Rohan Bandara in the coastal town of Tangalle.
Tsunami sirens in southern Thailand sent people dashing from beaches, but only small waves followed the alarms.
In Sri Lanka, the military told residents of coastal areas not panic because of the alert, but the government advised them to move to higher ground as a precaution.
"We are asking residents to be alert and not to panic," said Brig. Daya Ratnayake, a military spokesman.
But Thilak Ranavirajah, chief of Sri Lanka's relief department, cautioned "all people along the coast to be vigilant and move to safer places." A fire engine fitted with loudspeakers told residents to leave Tangalle, on the southern coast.
Geologist Lou Clark, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industry, said she had never heard of Park but hears daily from earthquake enthusiasts who claim to be able to predict impending disasters.
"One of the problems is that there are earthquakes all over the Earth every day," she said, "making it easy for someone to 'predict' a quake in a large area, especially in regions of the world, such as Indonesia, that lie at the boundary between two tectonic plates."