Aftershocks and pleasant surprises

The series of massive tremors in distant Sumatra Island last week sent their share of turbulent shock waves through Sri Lanka, bringing back horrific memories of the 2004 Boxing Day disaster that victimised 40,000 fellow citizens. As news of the earthquake measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale reached Colombo, even the landlocked felt jolts of fear, and it is not difficult to imagine the mental trauma faced by those living along Sri Lanka’s coast line.

The news was not good – a tsunami, if it were to occur would once again ravage Sri Lanka’s eastern and southern coasts – the same areas affected by the wave in December 2004, which left devastation in its wake. To recover once was hard enough, to do it again, so soon, was unthinkable.

As all these thoughts crowded the minds of our people, there was also something else happening that Wednesday evening that did not happen on that lazy Poya day in 2004. This time, state agencies, tasked with handling geological, oceanographic monitoring and disaster management kicked into action very quickly – the earthquake shook Bengkulu, Sumatra at 4:45 Sri Lankan time and 45 minutes later, the tsunami warnings were out.
In this day and age of 6 million mobile phone users, this proved the fastest way to transfer the messages, but radio stations, TV stations (including cable networks) were on the ball within an hour of the quake, issuing notices and warnings and finally, at 6 p.m. came the evacuation orders issued by the Disaster Management Centre.

The National Disaster Management Centre deserves special accolades for its professional handling of the situation, without causing undue panic. In fact, the flow of traffic along the Galle Road, if anything, was ample indication that while the warnings were out and people were in the know, calm continued to prevail. The Disaster Management Centre was well ahead of the cable news networks as well, picking up on the small tsunami to hit Sumatra long before the big networks ran the story, putting Sri Lanka on notice and issuing evacuation orders for residents along the eastern, southern and western coastlines.

Following the December 26, 2004 tsunami, the Disaster Management Centre set up units in areas affected by the killer wave. When the bad news came on Wednesday, it was these units that worked overtime on Wednesday and Thursday to take the message to people living in the high risk areas. The DMC used the mass media, police divisions and army detachments to get the evacuation orders out. The DMC was receiving its data from a link to the dart buoy in the Indian Ocean that was transmitting messages via satellite to countries in the region. The dart buoy records oceanic movement and then transmits those images to monitoring centres to warn of abnormal activity on the ocean bed. The fact that Sri Lanka is in on this kind of technology is heartening and the fact that officials are actually keeping tabs on this data is certainly commendable, given our poor state of preparedness three years ago.

On Thursday too, when powerful aftershocks hit Sumatra back to back, tsunami warnings were out again and schools in the coastal regions were closed as soon as they opened. All in all, while the country heaved a sigh of relief once the danger was past and the warnings lifted, it was good to know that we were not wringing our hands and wondering what to do while the danger was real and present.

Obviously, the word tsunami moves Sri Lanka’s people like no other; that is the one lesson learnt from last week’s experience. We might be lukewarm and apathetic when it comes to most things political and otherwise, but like the outpouring of humanity and feeling for fellow man in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tragedy, last Wednesday too was indication of how determined we are, as a people, as a state to prevent that extent of devastation reoccurring. Many things about natural disasters are beyond our control, but some things are well within our manipulation. We might not have been able to save much property, but undoubtedly thousands of lives would have been saved had Wednesday’s anticipated disaster unfolded.

This is why last week’s first response to a potential tragedy was one that all Sri Lankans can be proud of. The tsunami never came after all, but at least next time an earthquake shakes a nearby landmass, we can rest easier in the knowledge that the necessary safeguards are in place; that as far as it is humanly possible, Boxing Day 2004 will never happen again.