It came in the dead of the night. A nightmare for most bringing back memories of the terror caused by marauding waves on that fateful day, last December.
Warnings helped them reach safety, with or without provisions and gave them the assurance that they could at least save their lives.
For many it meant a run for their lives and hours spent loitering along the road, sitting on the pavements or seeking shelter with those who cared for them during the early days after the tsunami temples, churches, kovils and schools. But for all - communities and authorities alike, Monday night was a sleepless night.
Just three months after the raging waters devastated Sri Lanka's coastlines, coastal residents were warned of tsunami conditions, after an earthquake measuring 8.7 on the Richter Scale shook Sumatra late night on March 28. But unlike the December 26 catastrophe, and though no tsunami ensued, the early warning system helped coastal residents leave their homes with loved ones and valuables to reach safety in time. However, it will take a long time for these residents to go back to their days of peaceful sleep.
New to natural disasters of such magnitude, Sri Lanka is not equipped with the technology to detect tsunamis. However, earthquakes could be detected at the Pallekelle station of the Geological Services and Mines Bureau (GSMB).
As soon as the signal of the earthquake was picked up, the representatives of the Interim Tsunami Warning Committee contacted the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) in Hawai, says Lalith Chandrapala, Deputy Director, Department of Meteorology (DM). They were able to establish the tsunami threat within 25 minutes of the quake, he says. In addition, they received a tsunami warning advisory from the Japan Meteorology Agency (JMA) which is responsible for tsunami warning advisories in the region. Armed with the news the Committee decided to evacuate the communities living in vulnerable areas along the coast, he explains.
According to Chandrapala, the interim committee comprising the Director GSMB, DM and the Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy who were discussing tsunami warning methodology had come into a conclusion just about a week prior to the incident. It was a moment which tested the metal of their plans.
The warnings were forwarded immediately to television and radio stations for broadcasting and to all the police posts along the coast, through the police communication unit in Mirihana. As the South-Eastern, Eastern and Southern coastline was more vulnerable special attention was directed there. "By 11.30 p.m. we could complete the evacuation process," says Chandrapala, satisfied with their achievement. Staying in continuous contact with the PTWC and JMP, the Committee did not draw back their warning though no tsunami conditions were observed in countries near the epicentre. The warning was relaxed only around 3.15 a.m.
In Galle, the tsunami alert which was sounded on radio, television and then by Police mobile patrol vehicles, literally meant a run for higher ground. The regional Police stations received their alert from Police Head Quarters around 10.30 in the night of March 28 said L. De Silva, Senior Superintendent of Police, Galle. The residents were asked to move interior from the coastal line and people and vehicles could be seen converging on hilly elevations of the area such as Dickman Road and Labuduwa. In such evacuations, rumours, which could spread panic would be hard to combat.
It was no easy task, explains Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, of the Eastern Naval Command in Trincomalee. The Navy had the double tasks of securing the harbour and vessels along with evacuating people. While the responsibility of evacuating the town area was transferred to the Police, the 19 Naval sub-units from Nilaweli to Thiriyaya engaged in the evacuation process along with the Army, he adds.
"Though we received the warning and had the responsibility of evacuating people, it became a herculean task as we did not have enough equipment to carry it out," says Sub Inspector, Seneviratne of Moratuwa Police. At the time of the evacuation, Moratuwa Police only had one vehicle in running order, he explains.
However, they overcame this obstacle by requesting vehicles and manpower from the Moratumulla and Kahathuduwa sub-stations under the purview of the OIC, Moratuwa. They also managed to deploy more than 20 officers to evacuate people from the area. "This station is on alert all the time. We always keep an additional staff of about 10 to 15 during the nights after the tsunami," he says.
But, "by the time the Police arrived, we had already started to move to higher grounds," says Malith Silva, a boat owner of Moderawella Moratuwa. Though they used to anchor their boats at the Moderawella fisheries harbour, they do not do so any more, he says. The fisheries harbour in Moderawella lost around 20 boats anchored at the harbour on December 26, 2004. "After the tsunami we stopped keeping our boats here. Now we station them further inland up the Bolgoda river. And all what we did was to grab a few items of clothing and run. Those who had vehicles helped others as well," says Silva.
"Now we are vigilant of disaster. We do not sleep throughout the night. Someone stays up, watching the sea. We keep a 'shopping bag' ready to carry with us any time we have to run. If there was a system like this before, how many lives could have been saved," muses Sanjeeva Peiris another fisherman.
It was a neighbour who brought the news to Nilanthi Renuka, Seelawathi Fernando and W.A.D. Manel from Egoda Uyana, Moratuwa. "She had seen it on TV and was shouting and banging at our door, to wake us up," says Manel. Once they received the news, "we left everything and ran for our lives," says Manel.
They had not taken anything because "everything that is of value was gone with the tsunami, either taken by the rushing waves or pilferers," she says. It was not an easy task to take the children to safety, says Renuka. Along with her husband she urged the three children, woken in the midst of their slumber, and still in their night clothes to flee to safety. "All what I took with me were the ration cards and milk food for the children," says Renuka. Living in a temporary shack after the destruction of her house, Renuka keeps her valuables including cooking utensils at a neighbours house for safety.
For some coastal dwellers, as explicitly expressed by a woman in Egoda Uyana, whose house was already wrecked in the December tsunami, "each tsunami announcement means a run to higher ground, leaving everything behind.
We run higher and higher, and now have only the clothing covering us," she says. Yet higher ground does not really have to be bare ground or being bare of essentials, when more streamlined early detection and evacuation systems are being worked out. Being prepared always comes useful, as for this 32-year-old mother of 2 children from Egoda-Uyana, Moratuwa who keeps herself ready for impending disaster, since the tsunami on December 26.
Though living around 250m to 300m off the coast and safe from the marauding tsunami waves last December, Shehani Perera was also awake all night, she says. "Last time the water stopped just two houses away. So, naturally we are scared. I was in a better position because my husband watches the late night news on TV. As soon as we got the news, we bundled the children in to the car and went to our sisters about 15 km away." Shehani does not keep any valuables in the house, she says.
All important documents including her passport are under the safekeeping of her sister in Bandaragama. "My jewellery and all the good sarees are also with her. We only keep the IDs and a little bit of money," she says. After the tsunami an 'emergency kit' stands in their room with the most essential items for Shehani's two children. "I am really scared for the children. We (adults) can somehow survive, but they (children) are so vulnerable, they find it difficult to get used to this kind of situations. With nature you cannot play games," she adds.
Speaking with the communities the Sunday Observer found out that the masses were thankful of the warnings. It helped them reach safety, with or without provisions and gave them the assurance that they could at least save their lives. Warnings issued through electronic media had been more effective than warnings issued through the Police stations. The reason being the time lapse between the police station's receipt of the news and the time it took to reach the communities. "If there is a siren system, perhaps operated by the Police stations to warn us immediately, that could be more helpful," says T. Silton Peiris of Koralawella, Moratuwa.
While the concern of people in tsunami-genic or earth tremor-genic regions is to receive warnings with as much lead time as possible to flee the areas and save the highest possible numbers of lives and resources, the concern of the geological and meteorological authorities is to find the technology that would help them make near approximate early warnings. Such systems are still not established in the Indian Ocean and this region picks up such warnings from the United States Geological Survey which receives data from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre and the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre. The public is aroused to attention by sounding an alerting tone on radio or television, followed by the warning message.
As Saman Perera, Geo Phycist/Geologist, Geological and Mines Bureau, explains, predictions are not still accurately possible, and one generally receives warning signals only when an earth tremor is actually beginning to happen. "We can only pin point the location and the magnitude within seconds of such happenings," says Perera.
The Bureau operates a National Tsunami Warning Centre and is the local research agency of the Global Seismic Network installed at Pallekele and linked to the University of California, San Diego, and United States Geological Survey and Irish Incorporated Research Institution for Seismology.
A couple of Geo Phycists scan the international websites on a 24-hour basis to detect warning messages, which made possible the early signals sent to the President's Office, Police Head Quarters, Navy Head Quarters, Meteorological Department and then to the local public during the March 28 earth quake in Indonesia.
While Perera feels it is highly unlikely that a high risk earth tremor may occur in Sri Lanka, he is also optimistic of the possibility of a more efficient and effective early warning system being worked out for the convenience of people who are likely to experience the fall out of any impending earth tremors."