(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Tsunami drill in coastal areas

Along Sri Lanka's coast, sign boards like this direct residents to safer ground in the event of a tsunami
Amantha Perera/IRIN

Sri Lanka completed its first ever mass tsunami evacuation drill this week. Over 14,000 people were evacuated in 14 coastal districts.

“We selected one village in each district to carry out the drill and the evacuations were orderly,” Pradeep Kodippili, assistant director for early warning at the country’s Disaster Management Centre (DMC) told IRIN.

Employing local authorities and the police, residents were alerted to the drill held on 13 July by warning towers (see box), text messages and loud speakers.

Signs erected after the 2004 Asian tsunami, including pictures, also warned residents of low-lying areas most at risk.

A month ago a 7.7 magnitude earthquake off the Nicobar Islands near Indonesia prompted the Sri Lankan authorities to issue a tsunami warning along the eastern coast.

More than 35,000 Sri Lankans lost their lives in the 2004 tsunami, which prompted moves to enhance warning systems and disaster preparedness programmes, Kodippili said.

Warning towers

Twenty-metre-high iron towers set up on various beaches affected by the 2004 tsunami.

Once a warning is issued, the DMC communicates it to each tower by satellite.

A siren at the top of each tower, which can be heard up to 5km away, then sounds, alerting residents of possible danger. The siren can also be turned on manually.

The entire process takes 3 minutes.

The DMC currently maintains 55 warning towers strategically placed on the island’s eastern, western and southern coasts, with 25 now under construction in the north.

Source DMC

“People are more aware that lives can be saved during a natural disaster if we pay more attention…Since the 2004 tragedy, there is a much better structure in place to deal with a sudden disaster,” he said.

The DMC was set up five months after the disaster following the enactment of the Disaster Management Act. The Act also established the National Council for Disaster Management (NCDM) with the president as chairman. The DMC has regional offices in each of the country’s 25 districts, with village-level committees as well.

Tsunami drill welcomed

Local residents - many of whom ran from their homes in the early hours during last month’s warning - welcomed the drill.

“Our entire village just ran in our night clothes,” Udyam Sujantha, a 29-year-old mother-of-two from the coastal village of Dutch Bar in the eastern district of Batticaloa said.

Sujantha almost did not survive the 2004 tsunami when she was swept away; she clung to a coconut tree before being found by relatives. Three grim memorials on the beach testify to the over 600 people in her village who were not so lucky.

More than five years on, many in coastal villages like Dutch Bar bemoan the lack of an early warning system at that time which could have saved thousands of lives.

“We didn’t know anything then... Tsunami was just another word. Now we know we have to get that word out,” another Dutch Bar resident, 45-year-old Andrado Violet who lost her mother, said.

“In 2004 the first I heard of any tsunami was when I saw a 30-foot wave crashing over the roof,” local fisherman Clarence Regimus, said.

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