Changing responses to natural hazards
The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami really changed the way India responded to natural hazards. Threats due to an impending hazard are not taken complacently and early warning systems have been built up. For example, the National Cyclone Mitigation Project has enabled the setting up of Doppler Radars, more efficient in predicting the path and possible impact of a cyclone as it comes closer to land. This helped during Cyclone Thane so that people, especially administrators, were informed on time, enabling evacuation where needed. That there was widespread destruction due to the cyclone could not be helped – but at least the number of people who lost their lives was relatively small. In the case of a cyclone, the weather anyway serves to alert people in general and hence there is greater likelihood of preparedness, not so in the case of a tsunami. For this, bottom pressure records in the Bay of Bengal are in place to alert us to the possibility of a tsunami hitting the Indian coast.
April 11, 2012
The system saw its test very recently on April 11, 2012. It was about 2.15 (IST) in the afternoon when a quake struck off the coast of Indonesia, not too far from where a massive earthquake had struck on 26th December 2004. We in Chennai felt tremors for much longer than what we had felt in 2004 – a quick check of the USGS site showed the causee – a large red spot near Indonesia indicating a quake measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale. Since any undersea earthquake of magnitude greater than 7 is supposed to be able to generate a tsunami, the first thought was that we would need to brace for a tsunami like in 2004 for the magnitude was not too much lower than the previous devastating one.
The news channels had a field day!
The news channels on TV began responding to the situation. Reports of tremors and even cracks in buildings began coming in – from Kolkata and Bangalore. Kolkata stopped its metro rail. Beaches were evacuated in Chennai and other coastal districts. There were interviews with officials from the met department and correspondents in Malaysia for a tsunami warning had been issued for 28 nations including India. These bits of news were replayed ad nauseum, appearing as if they were ‘live’, with the ‘breaking news’ scrolling merrily that a 6 m tsunami was expected, that a 20 cm tsunami had been forecast, that planes with relief material had left for Port Blair (they were actually on standby) and so on. An alert was issued for the Indian coast, and the scroller told viewers even at 2.45 PM that a tsunami was likely to reach the Nicobars by 2.40 PM while we watched with bated breath for news that would indicate that the tsunami had hit the Nicobars. At 3.55, it was reported that people were asked to move to higher ground in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. An hour after the tsunami was supposed to have hit the Nicobars? What was happening?
Parts of Nagapattinam at that time had no power – how does one watch TV for alerts in such conditions? Was the information transmitted to the right people at the right time? Dependency on what was being said on TV (relayed by text messages from Chennai) became high for Bedroc colleagues so that they could pass the messages on to the relevant communities. By then, a sort of panic had also set in with the repeats on the TV news channels. The phone lines were clogged and it was becoming quite difficult to get through and relay information.
Questions – had Aceh been hit by a tsunami? What news of damage had come from Indonesia? Actually, none. Who had said that there would be a tsunami? Apparently officials from Hyderabad (meaning INCOIS). By this time, the earthquake had been scaled down to 8.6, still a tsunamigenic magnitude. Confusion- is the tsunami travelling so slowly? Would that mean more destruction? What did the INCOIS website say?
What did the INCOIS website say?
The truth is that when I accessed the INCOIS website perhaps around 3 PM, there were no live updates – nothing on the home page or the tsunami page despite later statements that that a bulletin was supposed to have been issued minutes after the quake. A couple of hours later, the site was largely inaccessible because the server appeared to be down. In fact the bulletins that we were able to access were from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center which said in its first bulletin that the earthquake was tsunamigenic and gave possible arrival times at different places. Bulletin 4 was after an “aftershock” occurred at about 4.15, it was 8.2 on the Richter scale. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said that sea level readings indicated that a tsunami was generated. But it did not materialize after all.
The NDMA’s Vice Chairman did say that the alert that was issued was precautionary and that people should not panic. However, the way the news channels constantly repeated and replayed videos of people running out of buildings, the shaking computer screens - actually building up the tension level in those who were watching, promoting us to wonder which news was correct – were they running away from a tsunami? Or were they running out because of the earthquake that had jolted their building? It was interesting to note that top Indian (Tamil Nadu) officials interviewed said that they were in touch with the Nicobar officials, for it was only after crossing the Nicobars would any tsunami reach the east coast of India! The INCOIS system too eventually surfaced – in time to access the last bulletin issued to be available for those trying to understand the situation – that there would be no tsunami after all. We could all retire to an uneasy sleep and hope that there would be no earthquake and tsunami scares that night.
The next day, the newspapers were full of praise for the preparedness for the tsunami, for the fact that within 6 minutes the ITEWC had said that there would be no tsunami. Then why is it that no clear messages went out to the news channels? Why were they showing correspondents from other countries and talking about an impending tsunami and about how the Indian coast was on a tsunami alert?
When we talk of information, communication and last mile connectivity, it is not only the pathway of information transmission from government to the possibly affected that needs to be clear but also the information that is given out to the general public, especially through the mass media such as the TV. We heard the next day that a control room had been set up in the Secretariat in Tamil Nadu with top officers with knowledge about disaster response. That news should have been publicised immediately – it would made the general public confident that the government had the situation mapped and under control. All that was known was jeeps with public address systems patrolling the Marina and trying to get everyone off the beach.
There was high reliance on technology to spread the warnings in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand through mass e-mails, mobile phone sms, faxes and website postings. These countries too reported problems with their websites – official websites in these countries crashed for some time with the surge in access. This was accepted and a point was made that this aspect would be taken care of so that in future the problem does not occur. It is interesting to note that twitter was used by the Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics agency to alert followers. Perhaps such updates could be posted on social media such as facebook and twitter by IMD, ITEWC and NDMA in India. Or people should be told which are the channels on TV which will telecast the information first, or which are the websites that will provide near instantaneous updates.
So, at the end of it all, when one does looks back at how the day unfolded, and looks at what were the lessons learnt and utilised from the previous disaster, there are certainly some that we can be proud of, but, some more that we need to revisit and test our levels of preparedness.
- The last mile connectivity worked extremely well, but thanks mainly to the deep penetration of the mobile service providers. The quick flow of messages through this system worked much more efficiently than the Early Warning Systems that were set up with such pomp or even expectations.
- The communities were ready to move or had already started moving away from their coastal habitations even before the local administration gave an evacuation order.
- Interestingly, some of the people interviewed in Nagapattinam carried with them their gold and money for safekeeping with one or two changes of clothes. However, none of those interviewed, spoke about carrying their ration cards or school certificates or any other documents.
- Most of the families who owned “safe houses” constructed after the tsunami, were quite confident about staying on in these “safe houses” and said that, if the wave height was larger, they would go to the terrace. In fact, it was also heard that the official message for evacuation was also similar- that all those who were living in vulnerable houses like huts or tiled houses need to evacuate and those in “tsunami houses” need not evacuate. One really needs to study this message with some seriousness- how does one assess the safety of a house, without knowing its age or present condition, or the height of the wave before confidently passing messages like the people in “tsunami houses” are safe.
- The 8-hour power cuts in Nagapattinam, cut away most of the communities from getting updated information from the media. The local administration may need to rethink on imposing power cuts during crucial times like this.
- However, this inability to access the media frenzy can be treated both as a boon or a bane. Who authorises the media content? Is it scientific? Is it the “Tsunami” label this time that brought immediate response from the people, whereas the warnings on Thane Cyclone only brought lukewarm response.
- The Local Administration swung into quick action after getting the official message from the State Authorities. The NGOs also used their network to inform all vulnerable Panchayats. The only difference was that the Administration waited for official “go-ahead” while the action at the field level started from 2.30 pm onwards. The protocol for the different levels of Watch, Alert and Evacuate are clear at the Govt. Levels but not so among the others. On the one hand, one can talk about this creating unnecessary panic that may eventually lead to a “crying wolf” syndrome. On the other hand, one can also talk about the need to move fast, especially when dealing with large groups of people.
To sound the alarm or not....still seems to be discretionary, given the multiplicity of messages and the deafening silence of the Government voice till the latter part of the saga. This has to change, the whole response mechanism needs to become more clear cut and cohesive.
Ahana Lakshmi with inputs from Annie George, Bedroc.