(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Text messages help get tsunami alert out

Mohideen Ajeemal, left, with a friend in front of his rebuilt house. The Muslim fish wholesaler from the coastal village of Sainathimaruthu in Ampara District, eastern Sri Lanka, lost his house to the December 2004 tsunami. On 12 September this year, when
Amantha Perera/IRIN

Mohideen Ajeemal said his voice cracked with panic and he literally turned white when he received a 20-word text message on his mobile phone in the late afternoon of 12 September.  

“Tsunami warning for Sri Lanka north, east and south coast. People asked to move away from coast - Disaster Management Centre,” it read. The warning was given shortly after a magnitude 7.9 earthquake had struck off the southern coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.

“What should I do? I live right on the beach,” the Muslim fish wholesaler from the coastal village of Sainathimaruthu in Ampara District, eastern Sri Lanka, later told the friend who had sent the message from the capital, Colombo, 350km away.
  
The fish seller was among hundreds of thousands who bore the brunt of the December 2004 tsunami. His house was damaged and he saw two of his children, a young daughter and an infant son, drown. He was lucky to survive with his wife and two other children, but the nightmare is still fresh.

Villagers like Ajeemal say at least 3,500 died in Sainathimaruthu and two nearby villages, Marudamunai and Karathivu, in the 2004 tragedy, which in Sri Lanka left 35,300 dead, half a million displaced, 27,000 injured and 1,500 children orphaned, according to the government and donors.

Text messages spur evacuation

Ajeemal’s business demands that he live close to the beach. After the 2004 tsunami, he overcame his fears and stayed put - renovating his beach front house that doubles as his work place. At his wife’s insistence, however, Ajeemal bought a second home - a small one about a kilometre from the coast.
    
When Ajeemal received the text message, he took quick action and moved further inland with his family.

“There are about 800 families near the coast where I live,” said Vincent de Paul, who lives in Point Pedro on the northern Jaffna Peninsula. “All of them moved out within 45 minutes,” he said. “We did not wait till the official warnings came, we moved before that to a church about a kilometre away.”

Like Ajeemal in Ampara, the Point Pedro community had been alerted to the potential threat by personal text messages sent by friends.


Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
Fishermen and wholesale buyers at the beach in Sainathimaruthu village in Ampara District, eastern Sri Lanka

It was the same situation 450km to the south at Ahangama town in Matara District. “We live about a kilometre from the beach, but we did not want to take a chance,” Upul Jayathileke told IRIN. He and his family delayed moving back to their house until the next day, even though the tsunami warning was lifted only two hours after it was issued. Jayathileke said the family remained nervous, particularly so when news came in that two smaller earthquakes had occurred off southern Sumatra the following morning.

Lessons learned

Unlike in the 2004 tsunami, when no warnings were issued, on 12 September those living in coastal communities were given quick notice. The government had learned the lessons of 2004.

Only a month after it hit, the government, with financial and technical assistance from the UN Development Programme (UNDP), set up the Disaster Management Centre (DMC), which monitors potential natural disasters around the clock.

“We have an integrated system,” Gamini Hettiarachchi, the DMC director-general, told IRIN. “Once we decide to issue a warning we make use of this system,” he said. “We tried to get the message out to government agents in all 25 districts, the military, the police and the media.”

DMC coordinators are present in all districts and coordinating units are located in nine districts, Hettiarachchi said.

In addition to text messages, many people learned of the tsunami alert through TV and radio networks which cut into their regular broadcasts to air warnings. In remote locations in the north and east, the armed services sent personnel onto the streets to convey the warning.

There was, however, one new lesson learned after phone networks became jammed due to heavy traffic just after the warning was announced: The national telecommunications authority has now asked subscribers to stick to text messaging during national emergencies.

Nonetheless, the DMC’s director-general feels the warning system worked well: “We got the message out fast and people were evacuated… and the alert remained in effect till the stand down was announced at 8.30pm that night,” said Hettiarachchi.

ap/bj/cb

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