An earthquake happened. Minor tsunamis occurred with no loss of life. The story was in the warnings and responses. My first (and obviously imperfect) reflections are in LBO. In the age of social media, people will learn of distant hazards independently of government.
How does one plan for 97 feet high tsunami? The scale of the possible tsunami trumps all previous notions of the risks facing the town. Deadly tsunamis have been rare here; the last few waves to reach Kuroshio, including one in 1946, did little damage. Town officials are not entirely blind to the risks of sitting on a shoreline facing one of the world’s most active seismic rupture zones. Two years ago, they built a tsunami tower for residents to flee to, but it is only about 40 feet above sea level.
Smith Dharmasaroja is a hero of mine. Disagreeing with a hero does not come easy. But he is wrong to give equal or greater weight to national tsunami detection and monitoring systems than to communication of last-mile warning. It may be that the fault lies in the reporter in ordering the comments, but it does appear that Mr Smith believes that a national tsunami detection and monitoring system is most important to Thailand. It is not.
The government itself has found the early warning actions of the designated national authorities deficient and is talking of setting up workaround mechanisms. Nothing really new, other than sadness that seven years and large commitments of resources have not taken us much farther than we were back in 2004. What is even more worrisome is the lack of knowledge among all the parties about the available modes of communicating early warnings. No mention of cell broadcasting that is capable of delivering location-specific tailored information to all mobile handsets within the range of a base transceiver station. The journalist has done a good job except for repeating misinformation about poor communication infrastructure and access in rural areas.
I recall a meeting within weeks of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, convened by the current President (then Prime Minister), to seek the views of intellectuals about rebuilding. The most memorable suggestion came from the late Arisen Ahubudu, who began with a reference to Madagascar once being part of Lanka and ended with a proposal to build a wall around the island, adhering to ancient Sri Lankan engineering norms. Luckily, it was not acted upon. In contrast, some bureaucrat in Japan accepted a harebrained proposal to build a wall to stop tsunamis. That collapsed in the tsunami that came with the Great Tohoku Earthquake.
Policy windows are an important element of LIRNEasia’s work style. More than supply push we believe in demand pull. Does not give us optimal control over our time, but we live to work, not work to live. The period following the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami was clearly a media window, even if we can debate whether it was actually a policy window. LIRNEasia, which does not have ongoing research on disaster early warning was inundated by requests for interviews and articles.
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.
I have been writing about the lessons that can and should be learned from the Japanese experience with the devastating local tsunami which in addition to its normal destruction, also triggered the failure of the nuclear stations. Those writings were intended for general Asian audiences, rather than any particular country. In the slideset here, I focus on one country, the one that I know best, my own.
At LIRNEasia we consider every disaster, however tragic, an opportunity to learn. Among the disasters we have analyzed are the 2010 evacuation orders in Sri Lanka, the reaction to the Bengkulu earthquake and ensuing tsunami alert in 2007, and even the Cyclone that devastated Burma/Myanamar. Here is our contribution to the analysis of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and the ensuing local tsunami and teletsunami. It has been published in multiple places. The excerpt below is from Asian Sentinel.
We are saddened by the multiple tragedies of the earthquake, dam break, nuclear station problem, local tsunami and teletsunami. We offer our condolences to the victims and our admiration and encouragement to the brave men and women doing the hard work of providing succor to the survivors. More concretely, we are working on a media note summarizing lessons from our post 2004 tsunami research, which was on risk reduction, not on relief and recovery. Here below is a excerpt from the note. The full text is Pacific tsunami revised.
What we want to do next in our disaster work is to train the inhabitants of coastal villages and the staff of coastal hotels to develop and rehearse annually risk reduction plans. The Chile experience shows the value. Still, Chile’s earthquake preparedness clearly saved lives. Laura Torres, 62, and her husband, Víctor Campos, 66, live in Constitución, a city flanked by the ocean and a river. When they quake struck, the earth shook so violently they could not stand.
Early warning does not happen every day. So when hazards occur, it is important that the experience is analyzed so that future responses can be enhanced. Here is a report on how warnings worked (or did not) on the Pacific Coast of Australia in relation to the tsunami generated by the Chilean earthquake of Saturday. It is a pity that the potential of cell broadcasting that can be targeted to low-lying areas that are in danger, without knowing any of the numbers of the mobile phones belonging to the people physically present and without congestion. The Gold Coast authorities used SMS for 10,000 people.
It is disappointing to see sirens still being promoted despite the demonstrated problems. And I think Kogami was present at the HazInfo dissemination event we held in Jakarta. Patra Rina Dewi, director of the Tsunami Alert Community (Kogami), a nongovernmental organisation working on disaster mitigation training for communities, said the knowledge people most need is whether an earthquake has the potential to become a tsunami. The current standard for this is an earthquake that occurs less than ten kilometres below the seafloor and is recorded as more than seven on the Richter scale. “But this kind of information should be translated into easy information for the people,” said Patra.
The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami showed, among other things, the power of the Internet to raise money. Now Haiti is showing the power of the mobile to raise donations for earthquake relief. Old-fashioned television telethons can stretch on for hours. But the latest charity appeal is short enough for Twitter: “Text HAITI to 90999 to donate $10 to @RedCross relief.” In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, many Americans are reaching for their cellphones to make a donation via text message.
The tsunami occurred within three months of LIRNEasia’s founding. We were lucky. No one in LIRNEasia was directly affected, though there were several “what ifs”. It changed our research program for sure. We did three projects directly connected to the tsunami: NEWS:SL which was a study on how Sri Lanka could establish a robust, effective national early warning system (Note to the government: it’s not too late to implement even now), when we figured there would be no first-best solution, the HazInfo project that sought to understand how communities at the last mile could prepare themselves to receive government warning and respond appropriately, and a little pilot on how communities could be given voice called Webhamuva.
Lakshaman Bandaranayake of Vanguard Management, who worked with LIRNEasia closely in the post-tsunami period, was kind enough to arrange meetings for Stuart Weinstein of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center who attended the LIRNEasia@5 conference. For those who may not know, Stuart was at the controls on December 26, 2004 when the great earthquake that caused the tsunami occurred. I visited PTWC a few weeks later and met Stuart and his colleague Barry Hirshorn leading to my first piece on early warning, post-tsunami. Despite all the controversies that were swirling around, Stuart and his colleagues were incredibly forthcoming and open, even agreeing to give evidence via a video link for the useless Presidential Commission on the Tsunami. Being the practical man he is, Stuart installed some new software at the Met Department that will help them make better use of ocean level information sent by the World Meteorological Organization and has also drafted some recommendations for the Sri Lanka authorities on how to improve their processes.