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Volume 30, Issue 3

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Wednesday, 07 January 2015 00:00

From Tragedy Comes Change: The 2004 Tsunami Ten Years Later

Written by  Vicki Thomas

"Public education is probably the most important thing."

"Even a few minutes can make a difference."

These are two very profound statements from Garry Rogers, a research scientist at the Geological Survey of Canada. Rogers was talking about the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami that killed a record 230,000 people from Indonesia to Sri Lanka to Somalia and left half a million people homeless.

The images of the tsunami that wiped out entire villages, lifted cars away, and pulled trees right out of the ground are ones that are hard to forget. For those who were watching and monitoring the magnitude 9.2 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra that triggered this tsunami - they were a turning point.

Ten years after this devastating natural disaster, things have changed for the better on many levels. Along with a much-improved warning system that has already been credited with saving lives during the 2011 tsunami in Japan is the heightened public awareness of the threat a tsunami can exert. This all adds up to more saved lives and better advancements in awareness and research.

The 2004 tsunami was so devastating for a couple of reasons: people didn't know the tsunami was coming and because most people had never even heard of tsunamis. This type of natural disaster simply wasn't on the radar: scientific or public.

When this tsunami occurred there really wasn't much in place to detect or warn people of the impending disaster:

  • Lacking real-time sea level data, the team at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center had no way of predicting that the powerful earthquake had caused the tectonic plates on the ocean floor to shift and trigger the tsunami.

  • There wasn't even a warning system in place for Indonesia, Thailand, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

  • In 2004, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had stationed seven Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) buoys - but only three actually worked.

  • There was no communication system in place to alert the public of what was about to happen.

"The speed of the warning wasn't even the issue," Eddie Bernard, director of the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory at the time said. "There was nobody on the other end of the line." (One Day That Changed Tsunami Science, pbs.org)

Now, ten years later, a lot has changed. Often as we know in business continuity, it takes a horrendous experience to institute change and this is exactly what has happened with tsunami science and awareness.

It was the deadliest tsunami in recorded history. Thousands of miles away, the disaster shook scientists to their core. But the catastrophic loss of life changed tsunami science forever, said Harry Yeh, professor of civil engineering at Oregon State University.

"This was the event," he said. "It was a turning point."
The disaster drew global political attention and fueled investment in tsunami research. (One Day That Changed Tsunami Science, pbs.org)

Today there are 30 DART buoys located through-out the world and scientists are now able to take advantage of the real-time data that is collected to better predict disasters and to warn the public. In fact, since 2004 there have been 40 tsunamis and with the new real-time data and models, there is now a 70 to 80% accuracy rate. The 2011 Tohoku tsunami did kill 10% of people living in the heavily impacted area, but Bernard stresses that the new warning system was used to get many more people to safety in time.

Of course the scientists and researchers say that there is more progress required to improve modelling and to take advantage of the latest technological advances - but now one of the biggest areas of change required is with human awareness and communication.

As with all business continuity and disaster recovery threats and disasters, it all comes down to: getting the word out fast enough and to to the correct people. All the science in the world is a mute point if the right people aren't alerted and plans aren't in place to react and respond.

The crux of this comes down to increasing education and awareness of how deadly a disaster such as a tsunami can be. This of course does fluctuate based on locale - it's hard to rely on the Internet, televised warnings and cell phones when people just simply aren't using these communication methods.

For example, when a tsunami hit Mentawai in October 2010, a warning flashed across television screens. But very few residents had electricity, much less a television set. That tsunami killed an estimated 400 people, according to the Jakarta Globe.

"We still have a lot of work to do," Costas Synolakis, director of the University of Southern California Tsunami Research Center said. "We can give out timely warnings. But we still have the last mile, and that's the implementation of the warnings." (One Day That Changed Tsunami Science, pbs.org)

As a business continuity professional, what would you have done on that fateful day in 2004? While people are aware of tsunamis - how do you solve the communication hurdles? Has the 2004 tsunami changed the way you think about natural disasters and threats to your organization? Think about your communication plan - are you relying on methods and models that your team simply isn't using?

To read more about the 2004 tsunami and the impact it has had: