Strong community awareness and preparedness are being cited for last week's successful evacuation of more than one million Sri Lankans after a tsunami alert was triggered by an 8.6 magnitude earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra in Indonesia.
"People were well prepared on how to evacuate. Everyone knew what to do, what routes to take," Major General Gamini Hettiarchchi, the director general of Sri Lanka's Disaster Management Centre (DMC), On 11 April at 2:08 pm local time, less than an hour after the quake, Sri Lanka's Metrological Department issued the warning and a call to evacuate to higher ground. Two hours later a second warning was issued following an 8.2 aftershock.
The earthquake occurred 440km southwest of Banda Aceh, the city most impacted by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which left over 230,000 people dead across more than a dozen countries, including more than 35,000 in Sri Lanka.
This time, more than 1,500 coastal communities from Puttalam District in the west to Jaffna District at the very northern tip of the island were evacuated in less than two hours.
Village level committees, set up under DMC supervision, were activated to oversee and assist in the evacuations, and on a national level the DMC office in the capital, Colombo, coordinated with district level committees and DMC district sub-units.
Nationwide alerts were sent out on radio, television and mobile phone networks, while the police and armed services were mobilized to communicate the warning to villages. At the same time, 75 tsunami warning towers along the coast were activated to set off sirens, Hettiarchchi said.
Although some towers failed to work property, the vast majority did, alerting coastal residents to the potential threat throughout this island nation. Many people had participated in awareness training and drills in recent years.
"In 2004, no one really knew what a tsunami was. Now everyone along the coast knows what it is, but more importantly, how to safely relocate," Hettiarchchi noted. The catastrophic tsunami served as a catalyst for the establishment of the DMC, with the Disaster Management Act coming into effect in mid-2005.
"Both globally and regionally people are much more aware now," said Bob McKerrow, the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Sri Lanka. He had been travelling along the southern Sri Lankan coast when the warning came, and said he witnessed firsthand the orderly manner of the evacuation. "The awareness levels were quite high," he confirmed.
Since 2004, the Sri Lanka Red Cross (SLRC) has spent US$1.3 million on bolstering community-based early warning mechanisms by setting up local groups to assist in evacuations, mapping out safe routes and locations, and installing tsunami sirens.
The SLRC's Branch Disaster Response Teams (BDRT) were also deployed within minutes of the first tremor in eastern Sri Lanka to assess the situation and remain on standby to assist in evacuation procedures.
Within seconds of the first quake people sought information from all sources. "Overall the community awareness created helped people. Everyone who was handling the emergency was calm and in control of the situation," McKerrow said.
Residents along the coast said awareness programmes conducted by the DMC, the SLRC and other agencies had made the difference. "This time we all knew what to do, unlike in 2004 when we knew nothing and waited on the coast," said G S K Herath, who lives in the southern town of Matara.
Despite last week's largely positive review, there are still issues that need to be addressed. "Traffic is one area we need to look at more closely," Hettiarchchi conceded. Several coastal cities, including Colombo, reported severe traffic congestion soon after the tsunami warning was issued as thousands tried get to safety.
Mobile phone service also needs attention. Post-warning mobile communication was poor, as networks became overloaded and getting a connection was difficult. This might explain why the DMC was unable to use its own cellular phone broadcast facility to send messages to close to seven million mobile users.
"The other important thing is to find out why some of the [tsunami] towers failed to react to the warning communication," Hettiarchchi said, adding that the DMC plans to increase the number of coastal warning towers from 75 to 100 in the next year.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in the last seven years, countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka have invested heavily in improving disaster response capacity and early warning.