Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 22 April 2012
To warn or not to warn — that was the question. On 11 April 2012, following a powerful undersea earthquake, government officials in many Indian Ocean rim countries agonised over this.
The 8.6 magnitude quake occurred at 8.38 UTC (14:08 Sri Lanka Time), 440 km southwest of Banda Aceh in Indonesia and 33 km beneath the ocean floor. That was relatively close to the location from where the devastating tsunami originated on Boxing Day 2004.
Earthquakes can’t be predicted, but once detected, they require rapid assessment and decision making, especially in maritime countries in case of a tsunami.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) – a scientific facility of the US government, located in Hawaii – issued its first information bulletin six minutes after the 4/11 quake. It introduced an Indian Ocean-wide Tsunami Watch, recommending a state of readiness to act, covering 28 countries and territories.
Over the next few hours, they updated their assessment, but didn’t escalate the tsunami watch to a tsunami warning, as only minor tsunamis were generated during the aftermath. At 12:36 UCT (18:06 SL Time), they called off the tsunami watch.
During this period, individual countries reacted differently. Indonesia issued a warning five minutes after the quake. India’s was in eight minutes for its east coast. Several others issued warnings; some followed with coastal evacuation.
In Sri Lanka, many people felt mild tremours as soon as the Indian Ocean rumbled. That set everyone phoning or texting — some telecom networks handled this spike better than others. Within minutes, at least two dozen radio and TV channels were in ‘Breaking News’ mode.
The online social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were already abuzz. (Not having felt the tremour, I first heard about it from my teenage daughter who was on…Facebook.)
While following Twitter and TV broadcasts, I kept checking official websites of the Disaster Management Centre (www.dmc.gov.lk) and Department of Meteorology (www.meteo.gov.lk), the latter mandated to issue tsunami warnings. Neither had any update for at least 90 minutes after the quake.
If a trans-oceanic tsunami was indeed generated, it would have reached Sri Lanka’s east coast (Trincomalee) in just over two hours from the quake. So the window to act was tight – but long enough for coastal evacuation.
Sri Lanka’s official warning and coastal evacuation order came around 15:30 SL Time. By then, radio and TV channels were scrambling to provide updates. In the absence of a steady flow of official information, they kept repeating whatever they found online, adding to the public confusion and panic.
“An ignorant public at a time chaos is not a good thing,” says journalist Amantha Perera, who reports from Sri Lanka for several regional and global media outlets. “There was also massive confusion: the government said it was a tsunami warning and got people out of the coast, but there was no follow-up information coming from official channels, which really led to chaos.”
Whereas the 2004 tsunami caught Sri Lanka by surprise, the 4/11 quake found Lankan officials and agencies erring on the side of caution.
“It is true that most people knew about the potentially tsunamigenic earthquake within an hour of its occurrence, which from the perspective of avoiding loss of life is very good,” says Dr Rohan Samarajiva, head of LIRNEasia and a former telecom regulator.
In a post mortem, he adds: “When it came to issuance of warnings, evacuation orders, etc., the government earned a failing grade. Not enough authoritative direction was provided in time.” (full text at: http://tiny.cc/RS411).
Was the tsunami warning and coastal evacuation justified? This needs careful, dispassionate analysis in the coming weeks. “Better safe than sorry” might work the first few times, but remember the cry-wolf syndrome. False alarms and evacuation orders will reduce public trust and response over time.
The multiplicity of information sources, channels and access devices is certainly better than their absence, but brings up new challenges. They make it harder to achieve a coherent and coordinated response.
During those tensed hours, we can assume a good many of the 15 – 20% of Lankans with web access went online it to look up and/or share information. We saw the power of social media: in a spontaneous collaboration, several regular Twitter users (tweeps) stayed active throughout the period.
One of them, Sanjana Hattotuwa (@groundviews), suggests that collectively the conversations on Twitter were a richer source of good information than SMS alone, or any mainstream broadcast that he followed.
As he reflects: “Broadcast had the scale and reach, social media had the timeliness, depth and quality, brought about by cross-reference, instant verification, rapport and helpful nature of this scattered group that mobilised within minutes entirely in the public interest.”
Tweets not only updated on what was happening in Colombo and other coastal areas, but also relayed latest news from established wire news services (such as AP and Reuters) and mainstream media in Sri Lanka. When some radio broadcasts were creating panic, tweets pointed out that at first, it was a tsunami watch — not a warning.
Our indefatigable tsunami tweeps — in particular @AmanthaP @groundviews @indunan @mahieash @mwikramanayake @nuzster @samarajiva and @sunili – have blazed a new trail. Their digital activism marks a new dimension in public communication during a disaster or emergency.
We can’t expect state agencies to become twitter-happy overnight (although timely updates of their websites would be a good idea). At a minimum, they must realise the info landscape is now transformed.
As Dr Samarajiva notes: “Social media and the Internet have changed the conditions of warning irrevocably. Social media appear to be disseminating information about impending hazards extremely fast. The government looks even more inept in these conditions, when they wait for too long to issue (unnecessary) evacuation orders.”
We have come a long way since 2004, but still face big challenges. A little learning can be dangerous and patchy awareness (plus fear) can easily trigger panic.
“If we don’t get the language and communication right, greater use of (social) media can actually aggravate confusion and chaos,” cautions Hattotuwa.
For a start, everyone needs to discern a tsunami WATCH (stand-by for more) from a WARNING (take action). Many – including some journalists – still don’t appreciate the difference. It is more confusing when hastily translated into local languages. A language-neutral colour code system can help. Why not adopt the well known hierarchy of green–amber–red?
When 4/11 ended without incident, we heaved a collective sigh of relief. We must distill the day’s lessons while memories are fresh.
As Dr Samarajiva cautions, “Now that we have gotten over the problem of issuing no warnings, we have to address the problem of false warnings.”