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False warnings are dangerous: Sri Lanka DMC should take legal action

In 2007, after false warnings and unnecessary evacuations in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, I wrote the following (published in India in early 2008):

Given the massive costs associated with evacuation orders (not only in lost productivity but deaths, injuries and other negative outcomes), government must be the sole authority. Given the certainty of blame if a tsunami does hit, over-use of warnings and evacuation orders is likely. It is important that procedures be established not only to make considered but quick decisions about watch/warning/evacuation messages, but also to counter the bias toward excessive warnings and evacuation orders.

Disaster risk-reduction professionals know that false warnings are an artefact of the inexact art of predicting the onset of hazards: but the general public does not. If they are subject to too many false warnings, they will not respond even to true warnings.

Now that we have gotten over the problem of issuing no warnings, we have to address the problem of false warnings.

But it appears that a crackpot university teacher and a local TV channel have combined to sow panic along the Sri Lanka coast, as documented impeccably by Nalaka Gunawardene:

The latest was on 15 April 2011, when confusion and panic were reported from many coastal areas of Sri Lanka following rumours of an oncoming tsunami. It was attributed to a television channel that had broadcast the views of a Lankan geologist who is speculating on predicting earthquakes with a little help from the heavens. Well, at least certain planets in the Solar System.

Scientific speculation is one thing, but causing public alarm and panic – especially at holiday time – is quite another. The Disaster Management Centre (DMC) was quoted as saying its units in the southern coastal areas had to take special measures to assure the people that there was no threat. The media reported how some people in Matara, Galle, Kalutara, Negombo, Trincomalee and Batticaloa fled their homes fearing another tsunami. Many of these areas were battered by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

The panic prompted the Disaster Management Minister to say that ‘legal action will be taken against astrologers, academics or others who make predictions on natural disasters and thereby cause panic among the people’.

I can recall the suspicions our disaster preparedness work evoked, despite repeated assurances that we would never infringe on the government’s authority to issue warnings. I hope the Minister will initiate legal action.

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