News: Put in place disaster evacuation plans now

The Star, 17 March 2011

ONE of the things that we have learnt from the devastating tsunami in Japan is that their automatic warning system had saved many lives.

The neighborhood siren went off even while the ground was still shaking and most of the residents moved towards higher ground almost immediately. Unfortunately, not all made it, especially the old, women and children.

The fact is that the horrifying scenes of a wall of water uprooting whole buildings can be repeated here if a similarly strong earthquake were to happen with its epicentre located just north of Banda Aceh in Sumatra.

In this case, the devastation will occur from Langkawi in the north to as far as Port Klang in the south.

The worst hit areas will likely be the coastal plains of Perlis, Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor. George Town and Butterworth will probably be the most severely affected highly populated areas.

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurring between Banda Aceh and the Great Nicobar Island can send a tsunami crashing into the coasts of Perlis, Penang and Kedah in just an hour or so.

With a tsunami warning system that can trigger the sirens as soon as an earthquake is detected, most or all of the coastal population can be evacuated to higher ground or further inland in an orderly fashion before the tsunami hits the beaches.

However, this can only happen if evacuation procedures are properly spelt out and practiced regularly like in Japan, where there are annual disaster drills.

For example, all vehicular traffic towards the coast must be stopped by the police or military as soon as the siren is triggered to allow smooth flow of vehicles away from the coast.

Those without any means of transport as well as students in coastal schools should be made to evacuate on foot to designated high ground or inland since there would not be enough time to secure transport for all of them.

Parents should not be allowed to go to the school, since this would only create chaos and clog the road in front of the school, hence hampering evacuating traffic.

The students can cover at least 6km on foot in that critical time and hopefully they will be on safe ground by the time the tsunami strikes.

The key to saving as many lives as possible in this situation lies in the automatic triggering of the tsunami sirens and an orderly mass evacuation of the coastal population.

Hopefully, the relevant authorities will take cognizance of the recent events in Japan and expand the existing system to protect the people should the unthinkable happen.

Kuala Lumpur.