By Raffy Tima
BANGKOK – Ten years before the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a Thai scientist boldly predicted a powerful earthquake hitting the Andaman Sea that could trigger giant waves lashing the western coast of Thailand. He warned the government to be prepared.
Dr Smith Dharmasaroja was not just ignored and ridiculed. Tour and hotel operators and other businesses heavily dependent on tourism warned him against ever setting foot on the famous beaches he had forecast would be hit by a tsunami.
When the disaster struck on December 26, 2004, people who had scoffed at the prediction could only sit up and recall those dire warnings which could have saved lives.
Sadly proven right, Dr Smith could only shake his head. “It’s a very valuable lesson by not listening to me ten years ago. If they only listened to me we could have saved at least ten thousand lives.”
The earthquake that occurred on December 26 was 500 kilometers away from where he had said it might happen. But all the areas in Thailand listed in his confidential memo as being at risk were all hit by the tsunami.
One of the worst hit was Phuket, the tourist paradise which declared the scientist a persona non grata after he first issued those tsunami warnings in 1994.
Dr. Smith explains, “It’s very difficult to tell people what’s going to happen because that (natural phenomenon) didn’t happen for a long time. The thing has not happened for a hundred years, and you say this thing can happen in the future. They say you’re crazy, there is no proof. But from now on they are starting to believe because we have proof.”
Shortly after the tsunami, the 70-year-old meteorologist and seismologist was pulled out of retirement to head Thailand’s National Disaster Warning Center, whose immediate task was to install a tsunami early warning system.
In 1994, as director-general of Thailand’s Meteorological Department, Dr. Smith predicted an earthquake would occur in an area in the Andaman Sea off the western coast of Thailand. This earthquake, he said, could trigger a tsunami.
He repeated the warning two years later. “I wrote a confidential letter to the government and told them what’s going to happen and asked them to warn the people quietly so people will not panic,” he recalls. “I even told them where it’s going to hit, but they disregarded my warning.”
The government had its reasons for ignoring the warning. Thailand’s tourism industry, after all, was at its peak, raking in millions of dollars from European tourists flocking to Phuket’s famed beaches – the very area Dr. Smith said was in danger.
After being ignored by the government, he disclosed his prediction to the media. He was immediately criticized.
“Some of them made a joke of my prediction. They called me a madman. Even officials, some governors in this area called me and said I was destroying the tourism industry. Hotel operators, tour operators were angry at me for making that prediction.”
Ignored by his own government, rebuked by his own people, Dr. Smith retired from public office feeling dejected that his work for over 25 years was disregarded. He had spent a better part of his career in Thailand’s Meteorology Department collating information about earthquakes in his country, analyzing data from available sources and developing a formula to make a prediction.
“I have had previous background (information) up to a hundred years in order to predict this kind of earthquake,” Dr. Smith adds.
But he is quick to admit it is hard to convince people of an upcoming disaster when no one has ever experienced it happen in their area.
Before the 2004 tsunami, Thailand has been largely spared major natural disasters because of its geographical location. That it might be hit by an earthquake or a tsunami was almost unthinkable until that fateful day in December. The proof that the people had demanded turned out to be one of the worst disasters Thailand and the whole region ever experienced.
Though people are generally now taking heed, not all are anxious to hear more of Dr. Smith’s predictions. Some tour operators in Phuket and Phang Nga province insist he should stop talking.
At a time when they are wooing tourists back to their beaches, Dr. Smith’s statements of more disasters to come is not helping.
Even the Chief Executive Officer of Phuket, Anchalee Tephabutra does not seem to enjoy talking about Dr. Smith. In a chance interview, she was asked to make a remark about Dr. Smith. Her short reply, “No comment!”
Dr. Smith insists his predictions are not meant to scare people but to educate them, and make them understand the fundamentals of nature and natural disasters. Besides, he asserts, there are ways of warning people without causing panic.
He says he is not alone in the quest to better understand nature in order to preclude possible disasters. There are countless experts like him churning out data and figures, anxious to second guess what nature is going to do next, especially in a region where natural calamities are part and parcel of everyday life.
“If they want to save lives, governments should listen to us. If I’m wrong their lives can still go on. If I’m right fewer people will get killed. No loss, it’s a win-win situation,” Dr. Smith points out as he warns of bigger tsunamis to come.
He said that because the December 26 was so strong, at magnitude 9.3, the second strongest earthquake in recorded history, “it has affected every plate around the world.”
Dr. Smith is especially concerned about an earthquake that occurred near the Andaman Islands on June 26, 1941. That earthquake had a magnitude of 8.7. “Earthquakes occur in cycles between fifty and a hundred years”, he explains. “You need time for them to accumulate.”
It’s been over 60 years since the June 1941 earthquake and another similar earthquake could happen again between now and 2011, he predicted.
Singapore and Malaysia are especially vulnerable according to Dr. Smith. An earthquake between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands could generate a tsunami that will travel directly towards the Straight of Malacca. As the channel narrows heading towards Singapore, more water will build up creating huge waves potentially bigger than the December 26 tsunami.
But with tsunami warning buoys recently installed along the western coast of Thailand, Dr. Smith assures, they can send out alerts to Singapore and Malaysia. Then again, he insists, the two countries should start planning for such a disaster.
Thailand’s capital Bangkok is also vulnerable to a huge earthquake, according to Dr. Smith.
Although there are no fault lines near the Thai capital, a big earthquake could spell disaster for the thriving city.
Bangkok sits on clay ground much like Mexico City, and clay ground amplifies earthquakes three times, Dr Smith says.
In September 1985, as many as 10,000 people died in an 8.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico City that also toppled seven hotels, three large hospitals and more than 100 government buildings.
What worries Dr Smith is that Bangkok has no building code. Tall buildings constructed in the last 15 years could survive but buildings 40 years and older face the likelihood of collapse, he warns.
But unlike the last time when a frightening prediction was ignored, the Thai government is now all ears to Dr. Smith. Bangkok is coming up with stricter building requirements and authorities are now formulating a building code.
People may not like the Dr Smith’s bold predictions, but they should have more sense this time not to ignore them.