For a few hours on Wednesday following the earthquake in Indonesia, people along the coastal regions of India – and in other countries on the Indian Ocean Rim – held their collective breath, and in some cases scrambled for high ground with traumatic memories of the December 2004 tsunami.
The tsunami alert that was sounded in 28 countries on Wednesday eventually turned out to be a false alarm. But it nevertheless offered a real-time test of the disaster preparedness systems that were put in place in the wake of the 2004 catastrophe.
The fact that the tragedy did not recur this time, of course, gives enormous cause for relief. In India, there were also other indications that unlike in 2004, when the tsunami struck early in the morning and people on the coastal regions were caught off guard, this time the information dissemination mechanism was far more agile.
Yet, not everything about the response within Indian measured up to the highest levels of crisis management. Yes, there was a lot of frenetic activity, but whether that would have counted for much in a real-life situation is in some doubt.
Here are five questions on the tsunami alert and the lessons from the response.
How good was the response of the official machinery?
From all accounts, the reflexes of the official machinery in India in the hours immediately after Indonesia sounded the earthquake and tsunami alert were sharp.
The official agencies at the central level put out early and periodic alerts with updated information on the tsunami alert and precautionary messages. Indicatively, the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) put the entire eastern coastal belt on ‘alert' status, which and cautioned people living in those areas to avoid going to the seashore or to low-lying coastal areas.
The National Disaster Response Force went into overdrive. The Eastern Naval Command alerted its warships, and contingency plans for rescue and evacuation efforts in Andaman & Nicobar, which were highly vulnerable, were put in place.
In Tamil Nadu, which bore the brunt of the tsunami deaths and devastation in 2004, officials quickly set up an emergency control room at the office of the Commissioner of Revenue Administration. Senior IAS officers who had prior experience of dealing in tsunami management were monitoring the situation along with the Commissioner, reports The Hindu.
Likewise, the administration in coastal districts of Tamil Nadu responded early and put out alerts. Government hospitals were kept in a heightened state of preparedness in the event of an emergency.
So was it all good?
Not quite. While there was a lot of frenetic activity, it didn’t always translate into meaningful action. In some areas, the response of the people was characterised by excessive alarm; in others, particularly among the coastal areas, there was a blasé attitude that manifested in a failure to heed official alerts to head for higher ground.
In Chennai, the biggest Indian metropolis that faced the tsunami threat, mobile telephone networks collapsed under the weight of traffic load during the crucial hours after the alert, as panic-stricken people tried to reach to family and friends. Media reports said that lakhs of phone subscribers were unable to call their family – to inform them that they were safe. It didn’t help that local television networks in Tamil Nadu began putting out archival footage from the 2004 tsunami.
And as people flocked out of offices and schools to head home, deficiencies in traffic management were on vivid display.
In contrast, elsewhere, there was an inadequate appreciation of the gravity of the problem.On IBNlive, blogger Sriram Balasubramanian points to the wholesale lack of popular awareness about responding to disaster warnings. “Clueless is an appropriate word for most of us in India with regard to major natural disasters.”
In his office, where people were asked to evacuate the premises, “people were scrambling downstairs either in a lackadaisical manner or with irrelevant theories on the aftermath of these quakes. One bunch of jokers had the audacity to update their facebook statuses before leaving the premises,” he adds.
Other instances of macabre “tsunami tourism” – of people actually going to the seashore to watch the tsunami – have been reported.
Was the Kudankulam plant at risk?
So much of the opposition to the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project in Tamil Nadu rested on painting doomsday scenarios of a nuclear meltdown in the event of an earthquake and/or a tsunami. And right on cue, anti-nuclear activists opposed to the project piped up on Wednesday to demand and immediate halt to work at the plant, saying the earthquake in Indonesia was "nature's warning” against the commissioning of the Kudankulam plant.
In a statement, the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy said that ite felt that the earthquake and tsunami (alert) were “nature’s warning” against commissioning the plant. “We demand immediate halt to the work at Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project in the wake of the massive earthquake off the coast of Indonesia, significant tremors all over Tamil Nadu and the potential danger of tsunami along the coast of Tamil Nadu."
However, the project’s site director M Kasinath Balaji said work at the plant was not affected although they were "generally on alert" after they received reports of the earthquake. Balaji said that the walls at the plant were 7.5 metres high, and the plant itself was on a raised platform.
So why was there no tsunami this time?
Without going into the minutiae of tectonic plates, scientists explain why the earthquake in Indonesia, which was very nearly as severe as the one in 2004, did not trigger a ruinous tsunami. The 2004 earthquake, they say, involved a “vertical slip motion”. In other words, the sea floor moved vertically, displacing more water and sending out killer waves around the Indian Ocean.
But the earthquake on Wednesday was associated with a “horizontal slip motion” of the Indian plate. In other words, the sea floor moved sideways, and therefore did not displace as much water.
At the end of the day, did we overreact?
Not at all. In times like these, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. The traumatic experience of 2004 meant that people were better informed about the perils – although, as we’ve seen, it didn’t always manifest itself in a strict abidance by safety procedures. And the information dissemination systems worked smoothly. The Telegraph reports, quoting Maryam Golnaraghi, the head of the World Meteorological Organisation’s disaster risk reduction programme, that this time, all the national meteorological services in the countries at risk by this tsunami received the warnings in under five minutes.
The effort must now be to focus on the areas where the systems didn’t quite measure up. More critically, at the popular level, there is a need to guard against excessive complacency the next time a similar alert is sounded. We may have dodged a disaster this time, but that’s no reason to lower our guard or allow the systems we’ve put in place since 2004 to rust away.