The 8.7 earthquake that struck off the coast of the Indonesian Island of Sumatra on April 11 brought a sense of foreboding that the region might see a repeat of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which caused widespread devastation to coastal communities across thirteen countries. Fortunately the tsunami never materialized, but it was clear that this time, communities were significantly better prepared than in 2004.
In Indonesia, sirens triggered by the national tsunami early warning system alerted people in towns and villages along the coast in Aceh, North Sumatra, West Sumatra and Bengkulu provinces and Indonesian Red Cross Society volunteers were on hand to help in the evacuation process.
“Our volunteers used cars and motor cycles and told people to keep calm, follow the evacuation routes to higher places and stay there until the tsunami warning was lifted,” said Khairil, head of office of the Indonesian Red Cross Society Aceh chapter.
The Red Cross also played a vital role in communicating essential information. Radio RPMI a local Indonesian Red Cross licensed Radio station based in Banda Aceh swung into action and started relaying messages throughout the region. The team called people live on the radio in different disaster prone towns to receive updates from community members on what was happening on the ground. The Radio station was also able to share information based on updates received from the Red Cross disaster management team, the weather bureau and NGOs operating in different sections of the community.
The Radio team was able to continue broadcasting information throughout the alert period as they had an emergency generator in place for times when the power went out. The broadcasts was streamed and could be heard outside of Aceh and globally on people’s smart phones, an initiative set up earlier in the year. Updates were also given through the RPMI 107 twitter and Facebook feeds.
Across the ocean in Sri Lanka, local Red Cross disaster response teams and volunteers in coastal areas in the North, South and East of the island were mobilized at the request of Sri Lanka’s Disaster Management Centre, to take a lead in helping people to evacuate.
“The early warning systems were already in place. At the grassroots level, everyone knew their role in their communities,” says Tissa Abeywickrama, director general of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society.
The Red Cross has invested over 1.2 million Swiss francs (1.3 million USD) to put in place effective community-based early warning systems which include the training of volunteers, mock drills, and construction of community centers in safer locations, installation of warning sirens and identification of evacuation routes.
“We have trained people over and over in order to face a situation like this. Our investment on disaster mitigation and early warning certainly paid off,” says Tissa Abeywickrama.
Further west in Kenya, government officers and disaster management groups led by the Kenya Red Cross in Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa and the South Coast, moved quickly to enforce the tsunami warning issued by the government’s Emergency Operation Centre in Nairobi.
In the resort of Malindi, residents and tourists left the beaches after being informed of the alert. “We received the alert from our regional office and were creating awareness from the morning,” says Hassan Musa, head of the Malindi branch of the Kenya Red Cross. “The response we got was very positive, but we had life-savers stationed around the beach just in case.”