Batticaloa, Disaster Management, Environment

A botched Tsunami Early Warning test – Lessons for the future

The following is an except from a letter I wrote about the recent Tsunami Early Warning Test last week.  I hope the readers of Groundviews find it interesting. I have to preface this by saying I am a Westerner, one of the few, living in Batticaloa, where I have been since shortly after the 2004 tsunami.

The excerpt:

The second exciting and panic-inducing event was the botched Tsunami Early Warning Test last Thursday, the 10th.  The papers had announced that the new warning towers would be tested on the 19th, so you can see the first problem.  Second, no one I talked to knew where these towers were.  Turns out that there are three in the District: one in Kallady, about a mile or so from my house, one in Kalmuai (technically in Ampara District but on the border), about 35km (20 miles) to the south, and at Passakudah, about the same distance north.

(For reference on the date, please see the following article. Note the last sentence.)

I have to tell you that almost no one lives in the Passakudah area; just a couple hamlets. So why did they put the tower there, instead of in a densely populated coastal region like Kattankudy?  I’ll tell you.  Before the war Passakudah was famous as a beach for swimming.  I’ve written about it in the past, and it is one of the most beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka.  Now the war is over, there are plans to develop Passakudah with five star tourist hotels.  In fact, they’ve already started fencing off parts of it, which is crime in my mind. So THAT’S why there is a tower there, rather than where local people live. It’s a matter of priorities.

So of course, my first though was “if you don’t live within earshot of the siren, which is the majority of folks, how are you going too know?” Then “are they gonna put up more towers?”  I hope so, otherwise the majority of people here are truly… well, you know.

So last Thursday morning I was on the roof, hanging my laundry on the line.  Suddenly, from a distance, I faintly hear “Beep. Beep. Beep,” and then an announcement in garbled Tamil.  More beeping, then another announcement in Sinhala.  Repeat again, but this time in English; a very proper English lady’s voice telling me in a pleasant conversational tone that there is a tsunami warning.

I was a bit confused, having read the article in the paper.  It wasn’t the 19th.  So I went down to my floor, and got my camera.  You never know.

I might add here that my house is about a mile from the beach; during the 2004 tsunami, the wave was only three feet deep by the time it got here.  But it did roll a van off the bridge at the far end (seaward) of the lagoon across the street, depositing it in front of my house, and killing an entire family, except on little girl.

Needless to say, the entire neighborhood was out on the street, confused in that stunned inactive sort of way people have when something shocking happens.  Most people do not read newspapers, so I was the only one who knew about the testing on the 19th. I couldn’t tell you if any of this was announced on radio or TV.

After 15 minutes or so, there was a new set of sirens and announcements.  Straining to hear, I could just barely make out “This has been a test.  There is no tsunami threat…”

So if your question is if the tower worked, then yes, it did.  Did the test work?  No. Few people knew about the testing and it was done on a different day than was publicized.  Those that could hear it were largely either confused or panicked. The vast majority of folks within the tsunami zone had no idea there was even a test, or towers even, and in the event of a real tsunami last week they would have been taken without warning.  Clearly many more towers are needed along with a better education and publicity effort.