Sri Lanka’s reaction to tsunami alert following Nicobar quake: Were we right?


Posted by on June 13, 2010  /  16 Comments

Evacuations in Galle, Southern Province

Was Sri Lanka’s reaction to tsunami alert today early morning effective enough? Did we observe the dos and don’ts?

We do not jump to conclusions. The information is inadequate and contradictory at times. We will try reconstructing from what we heard, from mass media and other sources. Please feel free to add your own story as a comment.

An underwater earthquake, measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale, off the coast of Andaman and Nicobar Islands triggered tsunami fears in Sri Lanka. Soon after, a ‘tsunami watch’ alert was issued by the US-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC).

The Regional Tsunami Watch Bulletin was issued for India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia at 01.04 hours Sri Lanka Time 18 minutes after the quake. (00.46 hours) A second message called off the alert to countries except India 44 minutes later. So by 01.48 hours everything should have been back to normal in Sri Lanka.

 According to Lankadeepa online, the disaster warning towers in Matara, Weligama, Devinuwara and Dikwella issued an alert (no time is given) that triggered evacuations in South. Lankadeepa says the chaotic situation prevailed till 05.00 hours.

Daily Mirror reported evacuations in the Eastern coast, which was just 1,000 km away from the epicenter. Both Police announcements and tsunami towers broadcasted the ‘warning’.

A Sinhala blogger  reported mass evacuations in Matara. 

Another blogger said the tsunami alert in Matara was called off at 03.00 hours.

The evacuations were not necessary, as it was only a tsunami watch and not a warning. It could be the initiation of the local authorities. Public could have taken the step on their own too, as strong tremors have been felt in different parts of the island, including Colombo, Moratuwa, Galle, Matara, Anuradhapura, Kandy and Batticaloa.   

Disaster Management Center spokesman, Priyantha Kodippily meanwhile said they had not issued an evacuation order and people along the coastal belt had moved out on their own, reported Daily Mirror.  

According to Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, General Secretary of Sarvodaya movement, who spent the early morning hours listening to Sarvodaya volunteers from the field, it was a different story.

No television channel issued an alert till about 03.00 hours, he says. Rupavahini’s ‘breaking news’ came only when he was going back to sleep after the cancellation of the alert. The only text message he received was from Ada Derana. It said “Tsunami Warning issued for Sri Lanka after 7.7mag earthquake near Nicobar Island India; people on coast asked to be alert says Met Dept.”

 Disaster Management Center of Sri Lanka web site didn’t issue the alert, but later published the cancellation. It said “No Tsunami Threat to Sri Lanka due to the Earthquake of 7.5 magnatude(sic) occured (sic) in Nicobar Islands at 01.05 a.m. (sic – this should be 00.46 am) on 13th June 2010.”

16 Comments


  1. Donald Gaminitillake

    Living in Wellawatte close to sea never felt any “strong tremor” nor knew about any earth quake until I read the news paper!!!

    I know what a tremor is because of my living experience in Japan. I have experience tremors up to 5 to 6 levels above 9 floors from ground level.
    Our houses in Lanka will collapse even with a tremor of 2+. Our houses are constructed to hold with the weight of the roof. Once the roof goes out of alignment the walls will just come down.Roof and rubble will be on top of you and you are dead!!

    At least a sms alert over the net work would have been appropriate.

    Donald Gaminitillake
    Let us change the standard

  2. DMC-SL states,
    NO TSUNAMI THREAT (Posted on June 12, 2010, 10:06:46 PM )
    No Tsunami Threat to Sri Lanka due to the Earthquake of 7.5 magnatude occured in Nicobar Islands at 01.05 a.m. on 13th June 2010.
    Has DMC-SL forecasted this by 10.06 PM ?

  3. Sri Lanka equipped to face a tsunami: Successful alert Sunday, see http://www.dailynews.lk/2010/06/14/news01.asp

  4. False alarms do not signify success. The false alarm and evacuation in Bangladesh in September 2007 contributed to the massive death toll a few months later when the Cyclone hit.

    The whole point of having trained and resourced disaster management officials is to minimize false alerts and ensure orderly evacuations when warning are issued. The DMC is failing on both counts.

    The Daily Pravda can propagandize. But the government should analyze its failure and ensure we do better next time.

    Learn from the past and from more successful disaster managers.

  5. samarajiva, i found your comment funny.

    it is easy for you to say anything in retrospect, but the authorities on the ground take decisions based on the information available at the moment. they can be wrong, but better to err on the safer side.

    sri lanka does not have a tsunami warning system. sri lankan authorities can only pass warnings. they should also inform when they are taken off. they did exactly that. why complain? what else you wanted them to do?

    do you mean that sri lanka authorities should have done nothing when every major international news channel announced the threat to five or six countries, including sri lanka? (i do not about you, but i was following it online carefully during the wee hours of sunday)

    natural disasters don’t happen preannounced. there is no harm being over-precautious when human lives are at stake.

    the government has not failed. they have done their job and we are grateful for that.

  6. Mr Ajax is confused. There is no reason for individual countries to have their own tsunami detection and monitoring systems. This is inherently an international activity.

    What each country should have is a national warning system. We are supposed to have one, but it does not seem to work well. We failed in 2007, and we failed in 2010, by ordering unnecessary evacuations, in the first case nationally, and in the second by what can best be described as a chaotic response.

    Please address the specific events in the time line given by Chanuka. This is the most important thing we can do at this point. Once the time line is confirmed, we must then analyze what could be done better.

    And we must undertake public education campaigns so that people who monitor the international media understand the difference between a watch and a warning, for a start.

  7. you seem to have missed the fine print.

    Disaster Management Center spokesman, Priyantha Kodippily meanwhile said they had not issued an evacuation order and people along the coastal belt had moved out on their own, reported Daily Mirror.

    tell me a single place where disaster management center forced evacuations.

  8. Disaster preparedness
    For the first time, Sri Lanka Disaster Management Centre issued an early warning on a possible tsunami threat on the wee hours last Sunday. This is the first time the 55 early warning towers along the coastal belt were activated.

    Compared with the situation that existed on December 24, 2004, this is a great advance. Unlike in the tsunami of 2004 those manning disaster management had not been away when the news of the earthquake came.

    There were, however, certain drawbacks too. As we reported yesterday people have misread the early warning message and panicked. Perhaps the memories of the 2004 disaster are still fresh in their minds. They cannot be blamed. However, it shows a deficiency in the disaster preparedness strategy. People should have been educated on the different warning messages and on the level of threat corresponding to each.

    There has been no coordination between different State agencies handling disaster situations. In fact, the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) Chairman has found fault with the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) for not communicating with NARA and GSMB prior to issuing the tsunami alert.

    This is not the ideal situation that one would expect. It is not known whether the DMC contacted them or whether they were not available for contact at that time. The public needs to know. Going by unfortunate past experience it would be pertinent to ask whether these institutions work 24 hours seven days per week throughout the year. Are all seismic monitoring stations, including the much publicized new ones functioning?

    Disaster Management should be a coordinated job. Lack of coordination could hamper disaster relief and attendant services. It would be interesting to let the public know whether there is a central body that has representatives of all authorities that are involved in disaster prevention including those in charge of mass communication.

    Another question that is pertinent is whether these institutions have adequate physical and human resources for the job. Fortunately there was no actual tsunami following the quake in the Indian Ocean last Sunday. Hence it would be difficult to exactly gauge the degree of success in this particular instant.

    Tsunamis are not the sole disaster that could befall the people. Much more probable and much more disasters are floods and earthslips. They happen to be repeated almost regularly during the rainy season. The Disaster Management Centre has disaster dates for 30 years. A study of the disaster pattern could be obtained from these data. They would serve as valuable information in preparing disaster prevention strategies.

    As was pointed out in this column a few weeks back most of these ‘natural’ disasters are partly man-made. Man’s neglect and ignorance of the delicate ecological balance between human, animal and plant species on earth as well as his rape of the environment under various pretexts including development has given rise to the present high frequency of disasters.

    It is necessary to begin at once measures to mitigate the negative consequences of past wrongs and develop environment-friendly and sustainable means of development.

    The recent floods in Colombo and Gampaha districts proved the folly of unabated land filling in areas such as Muturajawela and the Kotte bird sanctuary adjacent to the Diyawanna by the wealthier classes.

    Media reports numerous instances of the rape of the environment that lead to natural disasters. Illegal land filling, rape of virgin forests, destruction of the flora and fauna by the release of toxic waste into water bodies, air pollution due to release of toxic chemicals to the atmosphere, destruction of mangroves and maritime resources such as coral reefs.

    These practices have to stop if the natural environment has to be preserved for posterity. It is necessary to look beyond the immediate interests of the moment. Otherwise the day will not be far off when the species of Homo sapiens will find itself becoming extinct as the dinosaurs.

    http://www.dailynews.lk/2010/06/16/main_Editorial.asp

  9. Unlike Mr Ajax, the editor of the government newspaper is willing to acknowledge shortcomings:

    “There were, however, certain drawbacks too. As we reported yesterday people have misread the early warning message and panicked. Perhaps the memories of the 2004 disaster are still fresh in their minds. They cannot be blamed. However, it shows a deficiency in the disaster preparedness strategy. People should have been educated on the different warning messages and on the level of threat corresponding to each.

    There has been no coordination between different State agencies handling disaster situations. In fact, the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) Chairman has found fault with the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) for not communicating with NARA and GSMB prior to issuing the tsunami alert.

    This is not the ideal situation that one would expect. It is not known whether the DMC contacted them or whether they were not available for contact at that time. The public needs to know. Going by unfortunate past experience it would be pertinent to ask whether these institutions work 24 hours seven days per week throughout the year. Are all seismic monitoring stations, including the much publicized new ones functioning?”

  10. While the bureaucrats and experts argue about the June 12 experience, I wonder if we should focus on the remaining big challenge: how to communicate the news of an on-coming tsunami, or its likelihood, in ways that are clear, accurate and fast?

    Setting up high tech, high cost tsunami warning towers is necessary, but not sufficient. We need to address the socio-cultural and anthropological issues such as how people perceive and react to risks. This is why I called it the Long Last Mile, and it still remains the hardest part of the life-saving relay of information.

    As I wrote in 2005: “The most advanced early warning system in the world can only do half the job: they can alert governments and other centres of power (e.g. military) of an impending disaster. The far bigger challenge is to disseminate that warning to large numbers of people spread across vast areas in the shortest possible time.” Source: http://www.scidev.net/en/opinions/a-long-last-mile-the-lesson-of-the-asian-tsunam.html

    In Sri Lanka’s case, I wonder if there is also an added challenge of language or terminology. I don’t know how it works out in Tamil (worth checking), but in Sinhala, do we really have widely known and agreed terms to discern between specific terms like tsunami alert, tsunami watch and tsunami warning? If so, can someone tell us what these are?

    Right now, even with memories of 2004 tsunami receding in our memories, many living in our coastal areas seem to mentally associate the term ‘tsunami’ with ‘run for your life’. This creates panic and chaos. How do we gradually move to achieving a more measured and nuanced response that is still swift and decisive enough to save lives?

    For a start, is it possible to develop and nationally adopt a simple colour-coding system for communicating after a tsunami? A quick Google search didn’t show anyone else having done this, but it’s a simple idea that must have occurred to others sharing this hazard. The upward scale of yellow, orange and red alerts is fairly universal (thanks in part to Hollywood thrillers and satellite TV). Colour codes help us overcome barriers of language too, which is no small feat in a country where three languages are spoken.

    But let’s also remember what Marshall McLuhan said many years ago: “The price of eternal vigilance is indifference.”
    http://www.marshallmcluhan.com/poster.html

  11. Does anyone know how the Dialog supplied DEWN system for emergency communication performed in this event? Did the DMC actually used it to communicate with the first responders?

    Sept 12, 2007 Cell Broadcasting was used, what about this time?

    1. Chanuka Wattegama

      Sunday Times article says DMC has activated the DEWN system. (See link below) Nobody I know has received an SMS alert. (except for Ada Derana news, which is a paid service)

  12. Chanuka Wattegama

    Some extracts from Sunday Times today (June 20):

    Extreme panic can only cause confusion and can only worsen the situation says Assistant Director of the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) Pradeep Kodippili. Describing how the tsunami warning system works, Mr. Kodippili explained that, first, the Meteorological Department, which is in contact with international tsunami monitoring bodies such as the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii, informs the DMC in Colombo of the likelihood of a tsunami hitting the shores of Sri Lanka.

    The Director of the Meteorology Department, S.H Kariyawasam says once they receive information from the international agencies and advisories, and if it is relevant to Sri Lanka they issue the tsunami watch advisory and warnings- depending on the earthquake and the potential of a tsunami.

    “We read the message we get from the international monitors, and get it approved and then release it. The warnings towers are just one of the media we use to send out warning. In addition to that we have a text message based system called Disaster Early Warning System (DEWN). An SMS is sent to community leaders, district secretaries and various organizations located in vulnerable areas,” explains Mr. Kodippili.

    At any given time at the DMC, at least six personnel can be found making sure everything is running smoothly. “They are here around the clock, 24 hours a day. So, no matter what the time is, we are prepared – always,” says Mr. Kodippili.

    Once the DMC is alerted about a possible natural disaster, including earthquakes, cyclones, floods, etc., the entire staff gather at the Centre located at the BMICH, as each member has been designated a specific duty.

    “We then find out which areas are actually under threat, as we don’t want to alarm people unnecessarily, and issue a ‘possible tsunami’ alert to these specific areas,” says Mr. Kodippili.

    In the event of an earthquake that could potentially trigger a tsunami, a pre-recorded message that warns them is released. This initial message, according to Mr. Kodippili, is just an announcement and not an evacuation warning. However, as was observed in the coastal belt last Sunday, this message is all it takes for people to start panicking and run for their lives.

    ___________________________

    In Ambalangoda, where the signal from the tower went off following the earthquake, the police reacted promptly. Ambalangoda HQI Hemal Prashantha said his main concern, after making sure the people were safe and sound, was to ensure that no incidents of an unruly nature like looting or burglary took place in the midst of all the confusion.

    “I sent my mobile unit around the area. There was a lot of fast moving traffic, people were out and about. Anything could have happened. My biggest worry was the possibility of criminal activity springing up in the middle of all that panic,” he said.

    HQI Prashantha who was in the police quarters at the time, quickly put on his uniform and, with his team, was out and ready for action within minutes.

    “There were a lot of people in the streets, carrying various belongings. Some even had their dogs in their arms. I knew these people carried valuables on them, and I wanted to provide them with security. We also got in touch with the business community to provide safety to all the businesses in the town area,” he said.

    __________________________

    In areas like Beruwala and Bentota however, some residents complained that their alarm towers did not sound a warning following the earthquake, and some said that the Police were unaware of it until they informed them.

    Mr. Kodipilli of the DMC however explains that these towers did not broadcast a message simply because there was no significant threat to those areas at the time. The Centre decided against warning the people in those areas, he said.

    “The earthquake took place near the Nicobars off Eastern India. We did not want to create unnecessary panic in those areas near Kalutara,” he said.

    Full article at:http://www.sundaytimes.lk/100620/Plus/plus_11.html

  13. Extracts from a lengthy interview with W.U.L. Chandradasa, Director, Disaster Mitigation of the National Disaster Management Centre, in today’s (June 20) Sunday Observer.

    Q: Is there a simple way of alerting the people on tsunami warnings in Sri Lanka?

    A: Yes, we have 55, tsunami towers across the coastal belt. When we receive the tsunami warning we identify the exact area that will be affected. This time we identified only the eastern province and Hambantota, Galle and Matara. According to the location and the strength of the earthquake, we decide the areas that will be affected by the tsunami.

    We normally issue two messages. One is an alert. That is to inform the people that “something” has happened and there could perhaps be a tsunami, but that is not for the people to leave their houses. The second message is sent when exactly we have decided that there is tsunami. That is a message to evacuate the people from the areas which will be affected by tsunami.

    Q: What happened on last Sunday? The alert message was rather confusing to the people?

    A: We sent an alert and the Police started evacuating the people. The Police should have kept the people informed and not evacuate them. There was “miscommunication”. As soon as they got the message from the Meterological Department on the possibility of a tsunami, the police started evacuating the people. They failed to understand the difference between the ‘alert’ and the ‘evacuation’.

    This situation has to be corrected in the interest of the people.

    Q: How are you going to rectify this situation?

    A: We decided not to issue the alert order to the Police but only the evacuation message.

    Q: Is there a simple system of issuing the warning?

    A: People will not be able to identify the areas that would be affected by the tsunami. They will have to depend on the alert messages. These messages come from the Tsunami Early Warning Systems. Even scientists cannot identify the tsunami danger. Normally, we identify the tsunami when there is an earthquake exceeding the 7.5 magnitude on the Richter scale. But this depends as on the movement direction that the tsunami creates. If it was vertical in an up and down direction there would be tsunami. But if it was a horizontal there won’t be tsunami. Normally no body can identify the movement until they receive the information. That can be done only by a scientific organisation. Here they measure the sea level movement. It is only from that they could predicts tsunami. Even for a scientific organisation it takes at least 20 minutes to confirm it. They have to identify it from the floating boeing’s in the sea. From the floating boeing satellite communication they collect the information on the movement of the sea waves. Changes in waves are indicative of tsunami. If there is no change in waves there is no tsunami. It takes at least 20 minutes to decide the possibility of a tsunami.

    Read full article at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2010/06/20/fea03.asp

  14. respected sir,
    my name is ram kumar, ihad project based on the tsunami sir it’s completely a civil constructional project sir, i will give more information about this project if you want sir.
    TSUNAMI PROJECT

    The tsunami is the one of the natural disaster which is produced by the gigantic waves. Because of the tsunami millions of the people had lost their life. Many of the people lost their parents, children, relatives etc. The main intention of this project is to save the life of the people from the tsunami. This entire section will be lifted as soon as the danger occurred. The entire project is designed by considering the natural look of the sea shore. The project will not cause any problem to the natural beauty of the islands, coastal areas etc… The project will be present under the sand layers of the sea shore.
    The project mainly consists of two parts they are:
     Tsunami project part.
     Commercial part and the project part.

    Tsunami project part:
    They are sub divided into many parts they were as follows:
     The BASE section
     SUPPORTING pillars 1
     PISTON section
     PISTON’S
     Main Piston pumping section
     PISTON BASE PART
     PISTON CONNECTING PIPES
     Valves
     Escalator 1 &2
     Lift section
     Parking place
     Layers
     Layer connected to the base section

    Base section:
    The base part is the one of the important section contains the layers arranged in an order. The piston rod will pass through the base part and lifts the layers present on the top of the base. When the danger occurs the layers present on the top of the base will be lifted up from the ground as soon as the wave comes and hit the layers the base part present at the bottom will provide the good support to the layers to withstand to those waves. There is another section which will be providing the additional support. The supporting pillars will provide the good support and make the entire base section as constant one without any deviation in the strange conditions. The base section and the supporting pillars where connected to each other.
    The base section will be in the form of a block each and every block combines and form the single one. The front part of the base section will be thick while compared to the back part. The boundaries of the entire base part are made up of concrete and the internal part is completely filled up with the sand. The base part will have a small bend of 5 to 8 degrees so that they will give the support to the layer to oppose the waves. The first layer will also have the same bend of same angle so that both of them will get contact to each other tightly. There will be another small block of concrete inside the base section which will be giving the extra support for the layers. Because of this process the entire weight falls on the base part the base section is connected to the commercial section basement part so that it will be giving the extra support for the layers which were lifted from the ground to a certain height by doing this process each and every system will be connected to each other and increases the stability level of the system. Because of this process the damage ratio will also be reduced.