Associated Press

Bangkok, January 11:

Until two weeks ago, Smith Thammasaroj was a prophet without honour. As chief of Thailand’s meteorological department in 1998, he was accused of scare-mongering when he warned that the country’s southwest coast could face a deadly tsunami.

He retired from his post under a shadow, dismissed as a crackpot, accused of causing panic and jeopardizing a critical tourist industry that grew up around Phuket. Today, Smith is being lionised for his foresight after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. Less than a week after the tragedy, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appointed Smith as a vice minister and put him in charge of the newly established National Disaster Warning Office, which will work with local and foreign seismologists to establish a tsunami warning system. Now Smith has a new message: the United States must take some of the blame for the number of casualties. Smith said he believed that if the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre had acted quickly, many lives could have been saved.

“I’m not angry at them, because at that time they did not know for sure, they merely said a tsunami was possible after the earthquake,” Smith told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. Smith has been equally critical of his own country’s meteorologists. He said earlier that staff at the Meteorological Department working on December 26 knew what was coming, but failed to act because they were ignored earlier.

As head of the meteorological bureau, Smith, now 68, made headlines in 1993 and 1998 with warnings about the tsunami.

Senationalised by the local press, Smith’s warning filtered down to the word-of-mouth level, setting off a panicky week or so of rumours that sent people running for the hills in Thailand. Furious tourism executives and government officials excoriated Smith for his judgment.