By Olivia Rondonuwu
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (Reuters) - It was nothing like December 2004. Sirens wailed, warnings blared and police moved people away from coastlines around the Indian Ocean as a powerful earthquake off northern Indonesia sparked fears of another devastating tsunami.
Damage was light and big waves never came in the wake of Wednesday's quake, not like nearly eight years ago when walls of water roared across the Indian Ocean and ploughed into coastal communities in 13 countries without warning.
"The reports were of people panicking but there was little damage. We need to check for sure directly though," Eko Budiman, the deputy head of emergency mitigation, said at Medan airport in northern Sumatra, struggling to reach Simeulu island near the epicenter.
The alerts and evacuations mean a regional system passed a major test since it was set up after the massive quake and tsunami of 2004 that killed 230,000 people around the Indian Ocean, including 170,000 in northern Indonesia alone.
But luck may have helped avert disaster this time as much as the warning system, especially in Indonesia's Aceh province, where roads were jammed with residents trying to flee.
"The simple message is that in any critical condition like this, it's impossible to get everyone out in time," said Keith Loveard, chief risk analyst at Jakarta-based security firm Concord Consulting.
"The tsunami alert system worked to a degree ... While awareness has improved, reinforced by 2004, it still needs to get better through public education and government campaigns."
The 2004 disaster swept in with sudden ferocity. Thailand's southwestern beaches and hotels were packed with tourists on their Christmas vacations and people were out for a stroll on Chennai's Marina Beach in eastern India when the waves hit.
SYSTEM ACTIVATED IN JUNE 2006
Made up of seismographic stations and deep-ocean sensors, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System was activated in June 2006 after being agreed 17 months earlier at a United Nations conference in Japan.
When an quake hits, data is sent to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii and the Japan Meteorological Agency, which coordinate with national tsunami centers in the region.
It can take 15 to 20 minutes for quake data to be analyzed and a tsunami watch to be issued to governments and the public around the Indian Ocean.
Nations, also using their own data, warn citizens in a variety of ways - from radio, television and text messages to sirens and loudspeakers used by mosques.
Thailand set up a national disaster warning centre in Bangkok that coordinates with its six Andaman coast provinces. The system includes clearly marked evacuation routes, sirens and buoys out at sea that monitor tides.
On Wednesday, the centre issued a tsunami alert for the six southwestern provinces and tourists, residents and hospital patients were evacuated to higher ground.
"The hotel was very good, the staff were very good," said one man staying on Karon beach in Phuket. "They got us moving very quickly, so we feel very safe."
"LOOTERS WILL ROB US"
In India, authorities in eastern states, plus the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, asked people to move away from the coast. Police in southern Chennai kept residents aware of the warnings.
But in Sri Lanka, many people were reluctant to move.
"I am still waiting because otherwise looters will rob us," said Subramanium Sivalogan, a retired banker.
Others evacuated but saw little point after losing all they had when communities on the South Asian island were wiped out in the 2004 tsunami.
"We are wasting our time like this because they say there is another one coming," said Dali Silva, who took refuge in a Buddhist temple. "We didn't get anything after the last tsunami. Every time they say there is a tsunami we run like this."
The 8.6 magnitude quake on Wednesday and its aftershocks rattled buildings and nerves around the Indian Ocean but authorities breathed a sigh of relief that it was not worse.
Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said the 10-nation bloc was better prepared to deal with disasters than in 2004.
"All devices detecting tsunami in the Indian Ocean worked well and all capitals were on alert," Surin said.
But Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Global Insight, said the scale of the Indonesian tremors, a little more than a year after a devastating quake and tsunami in Japan, highlighted the vulnerability of many Asian nations.
"It also reinforces the crucial importance of increased regional co-operation efforts amongst Asian countries since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to strengthen disaster management and rapid response capabilities," he said.
(Writing by John O'Callaghan in Singapore and Frank Jack Daniel in New Delhi Reporting by Reuters bureaux across Asia Editing by Ed Lane)