COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, (AlertNet) - The details of the tragic mistake seven years back are still indelible in Goyum Prabath’s mind. It was the morning of December 26, 2004, and the young man from Sri Lanka’s Matara District witnessed a peculiar tide change.
“It kept going back, really far,” Prabath told AlertNet, “then suddenly the waves would reach the road that ran near the beach. There is a belief here that on the day of the church festival, the tide changes like this. We all thought it was that.”
That was a big mistake. The abnormal tide was the forerunner to a devastating tsunami that crashed into the coastal areas of Sri Lanka. The 2004 tsunami left over 35,000 dead and over a million displaced, some 150,000 without jobs, over 100,000 houses destroyed and a reconstruction bill of over $3 billion.
No warning was issued, nor was there was there any system in place to send one.
“No one in Sri Lanka really knew what a tsunami was or how to react to it, back then. When the waves receded, people went out to collect shells,” Gamini Hettiarchchi, director general of the island’s Disaster Management Centre (DMC) told AlertNet.
The devastation prompted the government to enact the Disaster Management Act in mid 2005 and set up the DMC, tasked with disseminating early warnings and improving disaster awareness and preparedness levels.
When the next big tsunami warning came earlier this April, after a strong earthquake hit near Indonesia, coastal residents like Prabath knew what to do.
PREPARED THIS TIME
Safe routes out of the possible disaster zone had already been mapped out and indicated with signs. Residents had been instructed during drills and other awareness campaigns on how to move out. State bodies such as police, health, transport services and the armed services had also gone through training on how react to a tsunami warning.
Such disaster risk reduction work also is expected to serve Sri Lanka well when it comes to facing other potential disasters – including an expected intensification of flooding, severe storms, and other extreme weather linked to climate change, Sri Lankan experts said.
“It is knowledge on how to avoid danger that will help,” Mudalihamige Rathanyake, head of the geography department at southern Ruhunu University told AlertNet.
Such awareness has already had a big impact in the village of Sainathimaruthu, in Sri Lanka’s east. In 2004, over 3,000 villagers died when no one got any warning of the approaching tsunami. This month, when the warning came, all the villagers moved out fast.
“We knew what we had to do,” said Mohideen Ajeemal, a survivor of the 2004 tsunami who lost two of his children to the waves.
Hettiarchchi, of the Disaster Management Centre, told AlertNet that village level committees have been formed in coastal villages to assist evacuations and relief efforts, while on a national level the DMC has coordinated with district and divisional level committees. Seventy five tsunami warning towers, equipped with satellite-linked sirens, have been set up. Despite about 10 of them failing to work after the April 11 alert, the majority functioned well, Hettiarchchi said.
When the earthquake hit earlier this month, the DMC also mobilized its district level units, armed forces, police, media outlets and other public services to get the warning out. Within 90 minutes of the initial tsunami warning issued by the country’s Meteorological Department at about 2 pm, all the villages in the danger zone had been evacuated, Hettiarchchi said.
Sri Lanka’s government has not been the only body to improve its disaster response in the wake of the 2004 tragedy. The Sri Lanka Red Cross (SLRC) has since spent $1.3m building its preparedness, especially along the country’s eastern coast which was hit hardest.
Within minutes of the new tremors being felt in Sri Lanka, Branch Disaster Response Teams (BDRT), were deployed by the Red Cross.
“2004 taught us what to do and we had a system in place,” Mahieash Johnney, the organisation’s communications manager told AlertNet.
In some instances, the Red Cross’ efforts proved an important complement to government action. The government, for instance, did not have enough boats to evacuate people from low lying islands in eastern Batticaloa District, but Red Cross boats were able to step in and carry out the evacuations.
Johnney said that the Red Cross had worked on creating a community-based early warning mechanism.
“It did work well, people knew what to do,” he said. “In the past we were doing drills to check the preparedness levels. This was the real test.”
However, despite improvements in early warning systems, not everything worked well in the hours after the new Indonesian earthquake was felt.
Soon after the warning began to be disseminated in Sri Lanka, massive traffic jams were reported in the capital Colombo, in Matara and other coastal areas. Towns such as Colombo and Matara had been filled with last-minute shoppers on the day before traditional New Year celebrations began.
“It was chaos. Everyone was trying to get out of the town and no one was in charge of directing traffic effectively,” Matara resident Prabath said.
DMC head Hettiarchchi admitted that traffic management was an area that needed to be improved.
“It is something that we have to discuss with police and other public officials and set a plan in place,” he said.
Another area of breakdown was in mobile phone communications. Calls between mobile carriers became difficult as the service overloaded. The problem was severe enough that the DMC could not use its cell broadcast facility designed to allow it to communicate directly with at least seven million mobile phones.
Instead, disaster officials had to send out separate messages to a range of mobile service providers, which then had to be passed on to each individual subscriber – a process that slowed down the speed of the warnings.
While mobile networks jammed, internet services continued to work effectively. But ordinary people like Prabath complained that too little official government information was available on the Web.
“I got the first warning from the Web well before I got the government warnings. I also kept up with what was happening on the Web, but there were hardly any (continuous) updates by Sri Lankan officials on the Web. That is something I think they should look into,” Prabath said.
Hettiarchchi agreed that there was room for improvement.
“But the main thing is awareness. If people know how to react to warnings, they will be safe,” he said.
Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.