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ENVIRONMENT-SRI LANKA: Tsunami Alert Systems Working – Too Well

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Sep 18 2007 (IPS) - A tsunami alert, last week, sent thousands of Sri Lankans living along the coasts of this island nation fleeing inland, but authorities were exultant that the early warning systems installed after the disastrous Dec. 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami were working.

Coastal Residents Flee Inland on Tsunami Alert  Credit: M.A. Pushpakumara

Coastal Residents Flee Inland on Tsunami Alert Credit: M.A. Pushpakumara

"The early warning systems worked perfectly," said Dhammika Wijeyasooriya, deputy director (emergency operations) at the National Disaster Management Centre (DMC). Minutes after Colombo was alerted of the quake in Sumatra, Indonesia, the Meteorological Department and the DMC were in touch with disaster warning centres and alerting the public in vulnerable areas.

But there is now a niggling feeling that the alert systems worked a tad too well. Experts here have been raising questions as to whether the Sep. 12 quake, measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale, and followed by a series of aftershocks the next day, merited a full-scale tsunami alert.

‘’Scientists have determined that there appears to be no immediate threat of an ocean-wide tsunami on this segment because such great earthquakes are typically at least 400 years apart," argued Duleep Jayawardene, a retired geologist with the United Nations.

Jayawardene says there are no officials who can read seismic data. He has urged the government to take immediate action to train seismologists and geophysicists in interpreting seismic data to ensure that an accurate assessment is made before residents are warned to leave their homes.

The government, he said, should review its decision to designate the meteorology department as the focal point for tsunami and earthquake warnings as the subject is complex and needs effective coordination and scientific input.

Unlike Sri Lanka, the Thai National Disaster Warning Centre (NDWC) did not issue a tsunami alert. News reports from Thailand said that the NDWC, instead, made a broadcast three hours later telling people there was no cause for alarm.

NDWC chairman S. Dharmasarojana was quoted as saying that the delay was based on a thorough analysis of the situation. He said the NDWC decided against a sudden warning on TV about a possible tsunami because it predicted that the quake would not cause giant waves in Thailand.

The NDWC broadcast three hours after the first quake was mainly aimed at calming people down.

In Sri Lanka residents were alerted through various forms of communication – TV, radio, three-wheeler scooter taxis carrying loudspeakers, police riding jeeps and motor cycles, and even by residents going door-to-door.

While people were told the quake was not bigger than the 2004 one, they did not take chances and most people living close to the coastline fled to higher ground with just the clothes they were wearing.

The reaction was understandable. More than 30,000 people died and a million people were affected by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 that devastated coastal Sri Lanka. Reconstruction work has still be completed in some areas even after nearly three years and for many affected residents the 2004 tsunami is still fresh in their minds.

Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, executive director, ‘LIRNEasia’, a non-governmental organisation that has been involved in disaster and hazard management research, said initial reports indicated that the meteorological department which acts as the tsunami hazard information centre received numerous phone calls from journalists when word got out about the Indonesian earthquake.

"In many cases, senior officers who should have been communicating the scientific evidence to key decision makers at the DMC and the ministry were being called directly," Samarajiva said, adding that this created a problem as time spent on the phone (for these officers) is time not spent on analysing or communicating the evidence to the relevant authorities in the quickest possible time.

He said the unstructured format of a journalist-initiated phone call can lead to misunderstanding. "For example, some journalists may not know the difference between an alert and a warning. This format also does not leave a record in case there is a need to review it at a later time," he said noting that this does not mean officials should not talk to the media.

He said the best process is to develop a reliable and fast method of communication (e-mail, fax, telex, or even a taped telephone voice message) for journalists in all three official languages. Messages should be sent to designated numbers and e-mail addresses, preferably using automated procedures.

Wijeyasooriya said plans were afoot to install 50 &#39early&#39 warning towers across the island where now only two exist. He said the towers are lamp post-like structures with loudspeakers fixed at the top facing different directions.

These towers can be operated from the DMC&#39s central operations desk in Colombo. &#39&#39I can send a message or make an announcement directly from Colombo,’’ he said. Authorities were also meeting on the weekend to review the early warning systems and look at lessons learnt from the latest experience.

Wijeyasooriya agreed that there is a need for a central system but said that, in time, the DMC, set up after the 2004 tsunami, would be the central body handling alerts, disasters and evacuation procedures.

He said the intensity of Wednesday&#39s quake was one-tenth of the 2004 quake, but believed that it was better to have alerted the people in the absence of enough skills to assess the seismic data than take a risk. "We need to be safe rather than sorry.&#39&#39

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