A world without warning

The Star, 23 Dec 2014

While Thailand’s tsunami early warning system was quickly put up after 2004, concerns remain about its ability to reach the correct people.

TO say that Thailand had not been warned of an impending tsunami before the devastating waves struck Phuket’s shores 10 years ago would be a lie.

The warning came years earlier from Dr Smith Thammasaroj. As head of the Thai Meteorological Department, he warned, in 1993 and again in 1998, that a massive earthquake could trigger a tsunami that would endanger thousands of lives along the country’s Andaman coast.

And so it did, on Dec 26, 2004 – a date the world has not forgotten.

Dr Smith’s warning had fallen on deaf ears then. He retired from civil service before the tsunami, publicly excoriated as a prophet of doom who had jeopardised the booming tourism industry on Phuket.

However, Dr Smith’s career was quickly resurrected just days after the devastating 2004 event, as he was called by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to head the newly formed National Disaster Warning Center (NDWC).

His first action was to set up an independent system of communications that disaster officials could use to warn the public of danger and to quickly evacuate people from risk zones.

“We must have a good system of communication and be able to evacuate people away from coastal areas,” he says plainly.

That lesson was hard learned. Minutes after the tsunami had struck, the phone lines were jammed, with people resorting to sending text messages for help or to contact loved ones – messages that sometimes took hours to be processed by overloaded servers.

The communications system for disaster officials was quickly up and running at a cost of more than 8mil baht (RM839,000), a price tag that enticed thieves to steal copper cable from eight of the 11 emergency radio network repeater stations in Phuket. The island’s authorities spent 2.7mil baht (RM283,000) to repair the damage.

Then came the towers. By April 2005, three warning towers had been installed on Patong Beach. By December that year, 15 towers had been installed on Phuket. Today, an array of 136 early-warning towers dot the Andaman coast, but unlike their former incarnations, they are now all triggered at the NDWC headquarters in Bangkok. Local officials can manually trigger an alarm at a particular location, but only after following a protocol to ensure that no alarm is set off by accident.

Since the 2004 disaster, schools and local authorities along Phuket’s west coast have staged regular tsunami evacuation drills, which have gone a long way towards educating locals on what to do if a tsunami warning is issued.

That education was put to the test during the tsunami scare in 2012, when thousands of people fled to higher ground, creating long tailbacks on the main roads of the island’s west-coast resort towns.

However, there are some concerns about the system.

For one, the warning messages and the cancellation message are delivered in Thai, English, German, Chinese, and Japanese, tourists at the 2012 incident who didn’t speak those languages were forced to simply follow the locals – and hope they were following the right ones.

Also, many evacuation route signs at popular tourist beaches have rusted away, leaving little hint of where the dedicated tsunami escape routes actually are.

The ability to warn anyone of an impending tsunami hinges on the unseen three tsunami warning buoys anchored to the seafloor up to 1,000km off Thailand’s coast.

The first buoy was floated slightly more than 1,000km north-west of Phuket in late 2006 at a cost of 538mil baht (RM56.4mil).

The first of its kind to be installed in the Andaman Sea, the buoy operates on US-made Deep Sea Tsunami Detection Equipment2 (DART2) technology, similar to that long used by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. In 2008, the budget for two more buoys was approved; they were finally installed in December 2010.

There is one way in which a tsunami warning could potentially reach right into the palms of those most in need. Of all things, probably the greatest weapon in the NDWC’s arsenal against an impending tsunami is a simple smartphone application. Yet this app is overlooked and unused.

The NDWC disaster-alert app is available on Google for Android devices and on iTunes for iPhones and iPads – making it possible for the agency to warn millions of people at the simple push of a button.

However, as of October this year, the number of Google downloads for the app stood at “1,000-5,000”.

The iTunes Store does not publicly disclose the number of downloads for Apple apps. Worse, although the iTunes website reported that the app was last updated on Jan 11, the espoused languages available – English, German, Northern Sami and Spanish – simply were not.

Our test showed that the one app that could save countless lives of tourists who visit Phuket each year only worked in Thai.

However, there is a silver lining. NDWC IT Specialist Yaiying Sirithanapivat tells us that his office is working “with other agencies” and that he expects at least an English option on the NDWC app to become a reality before year’s end.

The comprehensive array of tsunami warning and evacuation procedures has been tested time and time again in Phuket over the years, through the genuine alert of 2010 and the scare of 2012.

As recently as March, the NDWC quickly responded to a 6.5 magnitude earthquake off the Nicobar Islands, directly west of Phuket. The NDWC publicly clarified that it would not be issuing a tsunami alert.

Knowledge of that earthquake was quickly known, its threat assessed and appropriate action decided on – and all that information was quickly disseminated.

Some of the full-scale tsunami evacuation drills and rapid response exercises held in Phuket have even fooled visitors into believing that a catastrophe has struck again. Once they are disabused of such a belief, the official response they witnessed should embolden tourists to return to the region.

The big questions is: “Should we feel safe?”

Perhaps the words of Dr Smith, who warned of the 2004 disaster, provide the best guidance: “I would like everyone to prepare for the worst – but not to panic about the possibility.” – Phuket Gazette/The Nation