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Tue, 25 November 2014 02:37:01
Sri Lanka Tsunami risk reduction in the age of Twitter
12 Apr, 2012 06:54:43
By Rohan Samarajiva
Apr 12, 2012 (LBO) - In theory, national governments should issue tsunami watches and warnings. For sure, they should be the only ones issuing evacuation orders. But social media are upending government control.
Sri Lanka is not located in an earthquake zone. So when those of us who felt the tremors, our first reactions were to doubt our senses. People called/texted each other to verify. In my case, I learned that the tremor I felt was caused by an earthquake from a tweet within 10-15 minutes of the event. My first reaction was to check the magnitude and depth of the quake from the best scientific source I knew: the United States Geological Service. My first tweet, based on confirming the event at the USGS site, was at 1429 local time (20 minutes after the earthquake)

I sent several tweets, sticking pretty closely to USGS data. Unlike in 2004, the phones were working (within networks, though performance was patchy in locations, especially near the coast line) and Internet was not slowed down noticeably. Calls from one network to another were subject to congestion delays, suggesting that the interconnection links had been inadequately dimensioned.

Did the government issue alerts/warnings over TV/radio? Like many workplaces, my office does not have a TV or a radio. We take our news off the Internet or over the phone. I suppose we could have made a special effort, like going to the car to switch on the radio. But when the Internet gives you good information, why bother?

Tweets kept flying. I and several others active in social media kept emphasizing that only a “watch” existed, that people should be alert and not do anything for now.

I even stuck my neck out and said that given the depth, it was unlikely that a tsunami would be generated. Even though the 2012 earthquake occurred in deep ocean much further away from Aceh than in 2004, I felt that the key would be reports from Aceh and kept checking for reports.

None could be found. Only official news of a moderate tsunami came from Pacific Tsunami Warning Center’s Bulletin #3 (at 1014Z, more than 90 mts after the earthquake). I projected arrival times in Sri Lanka based on the USGS model in a tweet sent at 1449 local time (40 minutes after the event).

Government response

People were checking government sources. One tweeted that the Department of Meteorology website was silent on the subject. I checked within an hour of the quake: it had been last updated 19 October 2010. The screen shot below was taken even later at 1605 local time (1035 Z). The official warning and evacuation order came at 1630 (1100 Z). That was AFTER the model’s predicted arrival times for southern and eastern Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, trains were stopped on the coastal line. Electricity supply was shut down in certain areas. Buses were stopped. Offices were closed and people asked go home. It was a disorganized random set of responses uninformed either by realistic assessments of the risk (exemplified by the model predicting arrival times) or by definitive guidance from the government.

One could not entirely blame the government, because decisions to close workplaces early were taken without any coordination by individuals. No thought appeared to have been given to the vulnerability of those expelled from their workplaces and onto congested roads. The opening of the toll gates on the Southern Expressway to accommodate those who did not want to or could not use the coastal road was praiseworthy.

Conclusions

Whatever the theory says, social media and the Internet have changed the conditions of warning irrevocably. Social media appear to be disseminating information about impending hazards extremely fast. The government looks even more inept in these conditions, when they wait for too long to issue (unnecessary) evacuation orders. It is even more important in these conditions to improve internal processing of information and decision making so that the government can issue unambiguous directives based on the best science available. Even more important is the education of various authorities such as those running the trains, supplying electricity, etc. about the appropriate responses. Those responsible for schools, offices, hotels, exhibitions, etc. should be educated and if necessary directed to desist from rash closures and suspensions. Offices, especially high rises, are safer than a congested road should a tsunami come.

The government’s assertion that tsunami warnings worked is dubious. It is true that most people knew about the potentially tsunamigenic earthquake within an hour of its occurrence, which from the perspective of avoiding loss of life is very good. However, it is doubtful whether the government can claim credit for that awareness. When it came to issuance of warnings, evacuation orders, etc. the government earned a failing grade. Not enough authoritative direction was provided in time.

Uncoordinated actions such as shutting down public services, closing workplaces, etc. caused considerable inconvenience to the public. More than that, the throwing of thousands of people on to the roads when transport was shutting down made them more vulnerable, in the event a tsunami did arrive.

In the age of social media, people will learn of distant hazards independently of government. What government must focus on is helping them respond on the most intelligent way, based on the best science. On this front, much remains to be done.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the 'Choices' category.

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READER COMMENT(S)
11. Mahisha Apr 13
@Yohan: pick holes in the message - not the messenger; You are capable of doing that, right?
10. Prasad Apr 13
The Fault for the Traffic Jam Lies partially with the Private Sector and the People as well. The Private Sector organizations should be more organized to respond to the alerts and people should have more discipline in an evacuation. Blaming the government for Individual Behavior is not the correct approach to this issue.

Looking at the Visual Shown on TV, one would see that in contrast to the Behavior of People in the Western and Sothern Costal Towns the People in the Eastern towns behaved much better. While the problem with Colombo is that most of the People who come to work in Colombo travel to work from the Suburbs of Colombo and our initial reaction is to Evacuate and Go Home. This should not be the reaction. The reaction should be to head to the nearest Evacuation Point and remain there till the warning is listed.

Also with regards to the warning, Tsunami Alerts are not a perfected science and the DMC Issues the Warning through the Met Department based on the USGS Alerts and the Warning is issued based on lot of considerations that is not visible to the Public. Even the Pacific Tsunami Center which is attached to the USGS and is considered the Authority for Tsunami warnings warned that a wave had been generated and which is quoted below

EVALUATION
SEA LEVEL READINGS INDICATE A TSUNAMI WAS GENERATED. IT MAY ALREADY HAVE BEEN DESTRUCTIVE ALONG SOME COASTS. BASED ON THESE DATA THE THREAT CONTINUES FOR ALL COASTAL AREAS OF THE INDIAN OCEAN. FOR THOSE AREAS - WHEN NO MAJOR WAVES HAVE OCCURRED FOR AT LEAST TWO HOURS AFTER THE ESTIMATED ARRIVAL TIME OR DAMAGING WAVES HAVE NOT OCCURRED FOR AT LEAST TWO HOURS THEN LOCAL AUTHORITIES CAN ASSUME THE THREAT IS PASSED. DANGER TO BOATS AND COASTAL STRUCTURES CAN CONTINUE FOR SEVERAL HOURS DUE TO RAPID CURRENTS. AS LOCAL CONDITIONS CAN CAUSE A WIDE VARIATION IN TSUNAMI WAVE ACTION THE ALL CLEAR DETERMINATION MUST BE MADE BY LOCAL AUTHORITIES. Source: http://ptwc.weather.gov/ptwc/text.php?id=indian.TSUIOX.2012.04.11.1151

As you can see from the evaluation issued the wave behavior is unpredictable and depend local costal conditions. Also if the DMC waits to Issue a warning based on Reports of waves crashing on Indonesia, it will be too late for Sri Lanka if one is to go by how people behaved. Especially there is always the risk that the Wave could hit Sri Lanka first or at the same time as the hitting Indonesia. Hence if one is to suggest that we wait for the wave to hit Indonesia we are taking a major gamble with the lives of innocent People.

Also one should be aware that in modern times “it’s better to be Safe than Sorry afterwards”.

So People and that Private Sector should learn from this and adapt to face this kind of situation better. Also the police or the army should take control of Traffic and Divert the traffic to pre-defined evacuation points in a stern manner if the People do not be have adequately.

9. Yohan Apr 13
Thank god you have nothing to do Dr. Samarajeewa! Otherwise who would spent so much time and effort to try and discredit others and try and score!!! Well done ol'boy, well done!!!!
8. Kapila Apr 12
In 2004 when we first got the news about "sea coming on to land" we quickly switched on the TV but all we could see where Pirith enchantments.

This time around, they did have regular updates on the Tsunami situation but in between they kept on broadcasting Pirith, giving me a wired sense of deja-vu.

7. DillonDP Apr 12
They too might have gone home early based on the social media info :P
6. Michael Rochester Apr 12
Sri Lankans have a love affair with the Mobile Phone, almost everyone carries one. If GOSL weather / tsunami warning agencies forged links with all the Mobile phone providers, urgent global warnings could be swiftly and efficiently promulgated.... even to fishermen at sea, hopefully thereby preventing disasters such as befell the fishermen in Mirissa/Weligama recently, who found themselves at sea when a long-predicted storm was brewing.
5. Niran W Apr 12
When the first tremor were felt around 14.08,the furniture and doors on our first floor office building gently rattled and as Rohan said, we doubted our senses, in fact I thought that I was coming in for a blackout !. My only previous experience of an earthquake being way back in the 50's as a child. But realization quickly dawned and we thought it safer to move out into the open.

Working in an organization that has something to do with disaster preparedness, we immediately got on to the Pacific tsunami Warning Centre web site and sure enough it reported the 8.7 magnitude quake off Sumatra. Our first task was to inform our correspondants in Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Jaffna who would have been in the first line of any danger, to be on the alert, but that there was yet no mention of any tsunami. A colleague checked out the DMC web site but this had nothing, however the DMC itself contacted over the telephone confirmed that they had passed on the alert.

What happened a while later on the electronic media was sheer panic mongering. Announcers including a state radio station were urging people in the most excitable manner to pack their valuables into a " malla', lock their doors and flee as soon as possible for dear life,! This was yet while the web sites were reporting that no tsunami waves had yet been reported even in Indonesia !

In the street below adjoining our office in Colombo 7, motorists were tooting their horns for all they were worth. only not driving over each other in the rush to escape the imagined tsunami, reminiscent of the day the "Tigers came to Colombo" in July 83 !

It was clear that instead of a graded rational response, Yellow, Amber and Red, based on a scientific reading of the situation, the Red button had been pressed on unintelligently by the authorities, leading to the closure of the Marine Drive, evacuation orders as far away as Galle and Matara, with the Police ably assisting !

While it is certainly better to be safe than sorry, this kind of excitable and irrational response does no good to anyone. The State organization must as Rohan states act with more balance and care. Everyone know the story of the boy who cried "Wolf" too often.

4. Malinda Apr 12
It would be against normal government policy to work efficiently, so how can one expect early warning from these government institutes.
3. Sagarika Apr 12
The Southern expressway was opened based on a suggestion made by a citizen to the Police hotline! and not vice versa!
2. Sanj Apr 12
Mr. Samarajiva, it would be ideal if you can immediately give a statement soon after or within a reasonable time once this kind of a disaster happens. Specially before other fools take action like this.
1. ranjith Apr 12
Our Governmen Departments Sucks. Eats lots of peoples money, and politicians uses these institutions to feed their supporters by giving jobs. This country has become a Very Big scam rung by selfish individuals spread all across the administrative structure. Sorry to say this is surely wonder of Asia.