Lasse Norgaard, regional communications delegate
Even the organizers were surprised; when the alarm sounded to evacuate the village, every single household in Ban Khao Pilay took part in the drill.
“People followed the evacuation procedures, and went to the assembly points, bringing plastic bags with their most important papers. Everybody knew exactly what to do,” says Winai Yaden, one of the drill organizers and assistant to the village head.
Ban Khao Pilay is a small village of only 422 people near the coast within the beautiful Phang Nga province, north of Phuket Island in Thailand.
“The background for the evacuation drill is the tsunami. What we have learnt can also be applied if there are earthquakes, landslides, floods or other disasters,” explains another villager, Jeerasak Madsor, who owns the local grocery store and works as an assistant to the Imam.
Ban Khao Pilay is not an isolated example. Hundreds of villages in Southern Thailand are a part of a Red Cross-supported disaster preparedness programme where communities continue to be trained in what to do before and during disasters. Communication systems range from loudspeakers on the roofs of shops, schools and minarets to the formation of committees. The committees’ responsibilities include sounding the warnings for search and rescue teams, first aid and actually organizing the evacuation itself. Even the school curriculum has been changed so that every student learns about disaster preparedness.
The disaster preparedness programme began as one element of a huge recovery programme in southern Thailand that was initiated after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Some 8,000 people were killed when the tsunami swept ashore. Despite the destruction caused to local infrastructure, Phuket and other areas recovered quickly from the disaster. The clean-up was swift, and early warning systems and evacuation routes were soon established, reassuring both local residents and the tourists who had started to return.
Since the 2004 tsunami, the International Federation – together with Red Cross National Societies from America, Sweden, Finland and France among others – have supported the local authorities and the Thai Red Cross Society to restore water sources, hospitals, clinics and blood banks. A first aid training programme has been developed and The Thai Red Cross Society has established a sea rescue service manned by volunteers, with four base stations located along the coast of Phang Nga province.
Real estate booming
Five years after the tsunami, life has changed in many ways. Real estate prices are booming and land on higher ground in areas not hit by the tsunami has become increasingly attractive to developers. The resorts that have sprung up are a good source of employment for locals, but tourism development hasn’t come without a price. Some villagers from Ban Khao Pilay now complain that access to the coast is now more difficult.
“Before we could fish and we could teach every kid to swim. Now, it has become more difficult”, says Winai Yaden.
A village on its guard
Ban Khao Pilay remains picturesque. Its colourful houses and the relaxed pace of life make it difficult to imagine a disaster hitting the village. But as Winai points out, appearances can be deceptive and the village needs to be on its guard. The challenge now is to sustain the disaster preparedness system and ensure that the training already carried out is maintained and refreshed.
A beep on Winai’s mobile brings news from a national newspaper. In Phang Nga, flash floods have flooded 150 houses following heavy rains that morning – a reminder that small but devastating disasters can strike anytime, anywhere.