ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 30, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 18
Financial Times  

Lessons from the vanished tsunami

By Chanuka Wattegama

If the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was a disaster marked by inaction, what happened on September 12, 2007 was marked by plenty of action, but a dearth of right action. It was certainly not an exemplary implementation of pre-determined and meticulously planned disaster avoidance activities. Did it make the vulnerable communities feel more secure? Or did it merely add to the confusion and chaos? Wasn’t what happened on that crucial evening another good lesson -- how not to react to a disaster? Does this mean we still have lot to learn?

Destructive effects of tsunami.

Risk mitigation
Risk mitigation through disaster warning is a serious business. It is not as simple as a politician or a government official calling the national TV station and ordering evacuations or worse, the closure of roads. It is an end-to-end process with the hazard monitors at one end and communities at the other. In between are many intermediaries with defined roles. They are expected to play their assigned roles, not exceed their roles and not to play the role of others. If this balance is broken somewhere, as we have seen, it can lead to adverse consequences.

The prediction of a tsunami is an inexact art that must be practiced in conditions of highly imperfect information and time pressure. In the Pacific Basin, which has had the most experience with tsunamis, 75 per cent of all warnings are false. But this does not cause major harm because the false warnings are contained within the official system and do not get through to the general population for the most part.

The decision to issue public warning should be taken by the professionals after careful analysis. This does not mean that they should always be perfect. Neither does it mean that the decision should be deliberated till all the information is available, which is impractical. On the other hand, there is also no need to compromise accuracy for speed, as shown by the National Disaster Warning centre (NDWC) Thailand.

The Thai authorities could not have underestimated the situation in the light of the fact that their country being the fourth hardest hit nation in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But still they saw no reason to issue a public warning. All that the NDWC did was to broadcast a message telling people there was no cause for alarm, three hours later. NDWC Chairman Smith Dharmasarojana said later the delay was based on a thorough analysis of the situation. The centre followed warning procedures correctly and alerted the government and provincial officials. He also said that though it was the job of the NDWC to monitor earthquakes around the clock, telling people to evacuate arbitrarily would only panic people with no productive results. Therefore NDWC saw no reason to press the panic buttons unnecessarily.

In spite of the NDWC’s superior response, the Thai press still saw plenty of room for improvement.

Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre
‘The worldwide news networks began reporting the killer quake within minutes after it happened. At about the same time, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) issued a statement that a tsunami was possible and could endanger virtually any littoral countries on the Indian Ocean. The website of the Centre specifically mentioned Thailand, and so did the news reports, which quickly reached the Thai media and all the country. What happened after that was sadly predictable. Thousands of people in the six Andaman coastal provinces left their homes, offices and hotels and headed for higher ground. Many spent the entire night on the hills and in the mountains, fearing a tsunami despite -- or because of -- the lack of official information. Rumours spread, groundless but seemingly authentic, that waves were headed towards Phuket, and would hit at 10pm, nearly four hours after the earthquake.

If this were the media reaction to the sensible and correct response of Thailand, what can be said of the overreaction elsewhere?

Several countries issued public disaster alerts/warnings and (in some cases) evacuation orders. These included not just Asian countries but few African ones as well. Mozambican, Tanzanian and South African authorities warned people living on the Indian Ocean coastal stretch of the possibility of a tsunami but did not initiate any evacuations. Kenya went one step further by starting evacuation. Somalia, the only African country to experience significant losses in 2004 (300 deaths) issued no alert. In Thiruvanthapuram, South India, the district administration kept police and officials on vigil to carry out mass evacuations, the need for which did not arise. At tourist spots, the visitors received information with equanimity. By that time, television news channels had started airing news of the tsunami alert but there was no panic.

In Southern Bangladesh, on the other hand, it was reported that more than half a million people in the coastal areas fled their homes in panic. They took shelter in schools, other buildings, cyclone shelters and relatives' houses. This was after an official warning broadcast via television and radio. Police with loud-speakers were said to be “expediting” the process. People were asked to stay the night at the shelters till the government lifted the warning on the early hours of the following day morning. Officials in Chittagong were apparently satisfied about the efficacy of the evacuation operations.The situation in Sri Lanka was not too different. Perhaps it was even less orderly. Tsunami warnings and evacuation orders came in quick succession. Phone networks were immediately congested. Later local media reported incidents of looting of evacuated houses. The alerts worked – perhaps too well – but the question was whether it was necessary to undergo all this hassle for a hazard which had extremely low probability of converting to a massive disaster, and especially when it was not so difficult to determine the impact.

Alert and warning
The differentiation between the words ‘alert’ and ‘warning’ is important. There is nothing wrong in requesting the communities to keep vigil, even when the risk is minor. That harms no one. The danger is pushing it further and making it a ‘warning’ – an event that requires an action response. Warnings can cause panic and should be avoided till the last possible moment. Possibly the word “watch” which is used in North America, should replace the word “alert” to reduce the likelihood of confusion.

Guardian angels
In some countries it was reported that politicians are at the helm of disaster warnings. This was akin to the donkey who attempted to play the role of the dog to win his master’s favour. Considering the previous experience, their concern is understandable, but this usurpation of roles can cause serious undesired outcomes. Politicians are not trained to judge a prospective disaster. For them, it is more a game of guessing. This could mean evacuations following every earthquake on one extreme or at the other, no warnings when the threat is real. So better not to assign the politicians the role of guardian angels. Qualified and trained professionals must take decisions, of course, in consultation with the political authorities.

According to reports, the level of ICT use in the warning process was not optimal. Multiple media such as fixed and mobile phones, SMS, fax and the Internet can be used more productively. Redundancy improves reliability. Using Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) enabled media can help streamline the process and expedite messages. Where message--length limitations exist, as in SMS, the short message can be used to direct the recipient to the place where the complete message can be obtained.

Community preparedness also helps the national-level decision makers. If they know that the community is prepared and capable of responding quickly and in an orderly manner to an evacuation order, they can delay the ‘strong measures’ until absolutely necessary. It is when that confidence is lacking that there is a tendency to issue warnings and evacuation orders too early. If the general public are subject to too many false warnings, the general public will not respond even to true warnings. If this unsavoury outcome is to be avoided it is essential that the call of the Sri Lanka Minister of Disaster Management for an immediate review of the September 12th response be taken seriously, not only in Sri Lanka, but in the entire region. This article is a first response to the Minister’s call.

(The writer works at LIRNEasia and can be contacted at


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