Sri Lanka + 2 more

Feature-Countries work on different plans to escape tsunami

By Bill Tarrant

WALAGEDO, Sri Lanka, June 13 (Reuters) - The next time monster waves tear through this quiet little village on Sri Lanka's ruined southern coast, the man who runs the local cafe is poised to sound the alarm.

In Indonesia's devastated Aceh province, authorities are planning "escape hills" or mammoth, manmade mounds where people can run up to if there is another tsunami.

And Thailand is building 15-metre (50-foot) tall warning towers along its southern coastline that will broadcast evacuation orders in six languages.

There were no early warning systems or evacuation plans when one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history set of a tsunami that killed 228,000 people and left more than a million homeless in a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean rim on Dec. 26.

Tsunami-affected countries are taking various routes to deal with the next one which residents, unnerved with every big aftershocks, fear can happen at any time.

While the United Nations is spearheading an effort to set up early warning centres around the Indian Ocean rim, experts say it's the "last mile" -- when centres cascade the alarm down to remote fishing villages -- that is key to blunting the impact of the next tsunami.

Walagedo, a tidy little hamlet about 80 kms (50 miles) south of Colombo, is the first of Sri Lanka's Tsunami Protection Villages.

Chandrasana de Silva is in charge of sounding the horn, when the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau calls to warn of an approaching tsunami.

The horn sits atop a thin pole planted in a boulder on the beach behind his house and cafe on the main road. A twisted blue wire snakes out from a window by the phone, across the grass and palmettos, through coconut trees and over the beach to the pole.


De Silva acknowledges this is not an ideal arrangement. For one thing, he takes tourists on adventure excursions around Sri Lanka and is not home a good deal of time.

"This is just temporary," he explains. "Next month Colombo wants to connect direct to the siren."

Walagedo is meant to be the first of many villages with a tsunami protection plan - robust sirens on the beach, evacuation route signs posted on utility poles, public awareness campaigns.

It took the tsunami two hours to reach Sri Lanka's coastline. Indonesia was hit within a half hour.

Indonesia's reconstruction master plan proposes the construction of escape hills, scattered along Aceh's coastline on the northern tip of Sumatra. Made of concrete and covered with grass, the hills would be capable of accommodating 1,000 people at the flat top.

The hills would be situated to allow people to reach them within five to 20 minutes. The government is also planning three-storey earthquake resistant "escape buildings".

"They can choose the escape hill, the escape building or the escape roads," Ibu Chairani, head of the provincial public works department in Aceh, said in an interview.

"The priority is escape roads and then the buildings. The hills need a lot of land and that's expensive. Maybe an NGO (non-governmental organisation) has a budget for that."

One aid consultant working in Aceh was sceptical, saying the hills would have to be the size of a city block at the base to accommodate so many people at the top and would be impractical in an urban setting.

"The construction costs, even by cheap Indonesian standards, would be huge," the consultant said.


Thailand which staged the region's maiden evacuation drill on its tourist mecca of Phuket island has moved the fastest.

By the end of the year, Thailand intends to put buoys on the sea bottom that would transmit data of an approaching tsunami to the new National Disaster Centre, which will send out alerts to media, text messages to vast mobile networks and trigger sirens on 50 warning towers.

Foreigners spent $1.8 billion in Phuket last year and Thailand wants to broadcast a message that it is safe to stay on the tsunami-battered island.

The March 28 earthquake on Sumatra tested India's preparedness. Central and state governments issued alerts, and people fled risk areas as soon they saw or heard the first news flashes. The army, navy and air force went on alert.

But coastal communities along the Indian Ocean rim are often poverty belts with poor access to technology that could miss out on warnings, experts say.

So Sri Lanka is working on a "buffer zone" 100-200 metres (yards) from the sea, where no new building will be allowed, including for those who used to live by the beach. The decision has upset fishermen and hoteliers alike.

Indonesia considered its own building exclusion zone along the Aceh coastline, but abandoned the idea after public resistance.

An interim warning system for the Indian Ocean should be in place by October, mainly by upgrading an existing network of tidal gauges, Patricio Bernal, head of the U.N. Oceanographic body charged with that task, told Reuters.

A more sophisticated system using undersea buoys transmitting tsunami data to national warning systems should be ready before the end of next year, he said.

Then it is up to individual governments to plan their own emergency responses.

"Detecting a tsunami is only part of the problem," Bernal said. "The big problem is how to prepare societies and local populations so they can act appropriately to a warning."


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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