Learning Lessons from the Tsunami

By Murizal Hamzah

PHUKET, Thailand – Friday, April 29, 2005, 10:30 a.m. A wailing siren broke the silence. Then around 2,000 foreign tourists, bar and restaurant workers and local residents started scampering away from Patong Beach in Thailand’s Phuket province. They ran toward the direction of the hills where they were to take shelter from an impending tsunami.

Dozens of print and broadcast journalists, spread out across the Patong coast, followed the fleeing men, women and children to capture the unfolding drama.
It was an evacuation simulation exercise which Thailand’s Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation organized to test the tsunami warning system it installed four months after giant waves engulfed the southwestern coast of the country. A 9.1 Richter-scale underwater earthquake with epicenter off the coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra island on December 26, 2004, triggered waves that killed up to 220,000 people in south and southeast Asia.

Thailand lost around 1,500 of its own people, an equal number of foreign holiday-seekers and an undetermined number of Burmese migrant workers during the tsunami. After mounting a major rescue and relief effort, the government unveiled plans to set up a tsunami warning system to preclude the occurrence of another disaster of such magnitude.

Four months after the tragedy, the worst to hit Thailand in recent memory, the government launched its early warning system on Patong beach in Phuket, one of six provinces where warning towers will be set up.

After pressing the button that set off the siren, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra watched the evacuation drill, which saw tourists and local residents fleeing from hotels and homes. Meanwhile, off the coast, a helicopter lowered a sloop and emergency torches, releasing orange smoke close to where volunteers were floating on the beach, being tossed by waves. Several helicopters and five fishing boats combed the beach, looking for victims.

The drill was aimed at familiarizing residents and tourists to the evacuation procedure.

Earlier Warnings Unheeded

Thaksin said Thailand has learned lessons from the December tsunami, a disaster which some local experts have warned against years earlier. Their warning went unheeded and were in fact ridiculed at that time.

The twice-a-year exercise, Thaksin said, is key to ensuring that people will be better prepared to deal with a tsunami. “We are planning to set up 50 early warning towers along the tourist-filled beaches,” he told journalists who covered the first-ever evacuation drill in southern Thailand in April. Of the planned 50 towers, three were already operational, he said.

The towers will be linked to the National Disaster Warning Center. Whenever the system detects huge waves, the data will be transmitted to the center which will alert television and radio networks across the country to broadcast the warning.

In the affected communities, the warnings will be announced through loud hailers in various languages in addition to Thai: English, Japanese, French, German, and Mandarin.

The December 2004 tsunami hit Thailand 45 minutes after it hit Aceh in Indonesia with the speed of 900 km per hour, slowing down to 50 km when it hit the coast, according to the book, The Tsunami on Phuket, published by local government of Phuket in March 2005.

It said that the tsunami hit six Thai provinces including Phuket, Phang nga and Krabi, touted as “international tourist paradise”, as well as Ranong, Trang and Satun. Phang nga was the worst hit, with more than two thirds of the casualties were found.

The book detailed the number of the tsunami victims in Thailand: 5,395 people dead, consisting of  1,961 Thai nationals, 1,953 foreign tourists and 1,481 people who remained unidentified and whose bodies are in morgues in the south. In this group belong countless Burmese migrant workers, many of whom are undocumented.

“The government covered up the real number of fatalities so as not to scare away international tourists,” said Swut, who lost his job after the tsunami destroyed the hotel in Khao Lak where he  worked before the disaster.

Gelombang ie raya in  Aceh

In Indonesia’s Aceh province, which bore the brunt of the tsunami’s fury, a warning system similar to that in southern Thailand has yet to take final shape. The lack of coordination among different government agencies involved slowed efforts to get the plans off the ground sooner.

(President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, during the tsunami’s first year commemoration ceremony in Aceh, set off a siren as part of a tsunami warning system. But the planned sophisticated network of seismic monitoring, satellite communications and underground sensors has yet to be installed, news reports say).

A Unesco official in Indonesia was earlier quoted as saying that a countrywide warning system that would be firmly connected to coastal communities in the earthquake-prone archipelago could take three years to put into place.

Indonesians in western Sumatra are well aware of the necessity of the warning system that many say could have helped save thousands of lives on that fateful day in December 2004. The memory is still fresh in the minds of many.

Shortly before 8 a.m. on December 26, 2004, people in Aceh, at the tip of Sumatra, were jolted by a powerful earthquake which was unlike others they have experienced in the past. Because Indonesians have been accustomed to tremors, they took no extraordinary measures. About 30 minutes later, however, Aceh was hit by a tsunami.

Called “gelombang ie raya” in Acehnese, waves reaching 10-20 meters high swept across the province, crashing against buildings and dragging people with their force. It was the worst disaster to have hit Indonesia, although the tsunami was not entirely unknown to its people.

Acehnese historian Muhammad Adli in Banda Aceh said the December 2004 tsunami was the third to hit Aceh. He said, the first tsunami occurred during the Aceh kingdom in 1607, and the second during the Dutch colonial reign in 1880.

There are probably no written accounts of previous tsunamis hitting Aceh, but tsunamis in other parts of Indonesia have been very well documented. One of them is a tsunami that followed the eruption of Krakatau in 1883, which killed 36,000 people. After the eruption of Krakatau, located in the Sunda Strait between Sumatera and Java islands, there were 17 tsunamis from 1900-1996, killing scores of people at a time.

(The story was translated from its original text in Bahasa Indonesia, which was published in Sinar Harapan newspaper in Indonesia).

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