SRI LANKA: Tsunami Demons Haunt the Coast

  • by Amantha Perera (colombo)
  • Inter Press Service

For those who lived to tell the tale of how 30,000 souls perished on that fateful Boxing Day in 2004, the slightest change in the mood of the sea is enough to send a chill down their spines.

Udayam Sujatha, who survived the tsunami after being dragged some way by the waves, now lives with her husband near the coast in the eastern town of Batticaloa. 'I sometimes hate the sea,' she told IPS.

Yet, thousands of people who live in the numerous towns and villages along the coast have set aside their fears and managed to put their shattered lives back together again.

In Weligama, a small town with a scenic bay about 140 km south of the capital Colombo, residents say they are slowly coming to terms with the tragedy, although they are periodically reminded of how destructive nature can be.

One month before the seventh anniversary of the Asian tsunami Weligama lost 14 people and 11 were listed as missing when gale force winds and rains hit the area.

Most of those killed or reported missing at Weligama on Nov. 25 were fishermen out at sea when the winds roared in. In all, 29 were killed and over 8,800 houses damaged along the southern coast.

'The whole area is like a giant funeral now,' said Chandana (one name), a fisherman from Weligama. 'The last time something like this happened was in 2004. We never thought that the sea demons would come back so soon.'

All along the coast there are reminders of what started out as a calm December morning seven years ago. About 50 km north of Weligama, at Peraliya, stands a large replica of the Bamiyan Buddha statue facing the ocean, erected with funds from Japanese donors in memory of those who perished.

A little distance away stands another memorial where a packed train was swept off its tracks by the waves. Over 1,000 died inside carriages that later were to become sought after props for TV stand-ups.

The beaches are dotted with reminders of the tsunami. Near Sujatha's home there are three monuments listing the names of people who died.

There are also large, newly constructed villages. Tsu-chi village in Siribopura in southern Hambantota district has 1,000 houses built for those who had lost their homes in the tsunami.

Every year mourners gather at the beach on Dec. 26 to remember all those killed in the tragedy, though the memorials are becoming less elaborate.

'We have been getting over it,' said Chandana, the fisherman from Weligama.

Till the tsunami Sri Lankans did not pay much attention to natural disasters. But since then there has been heightened emphasis on disaster mitigation and early warning.

In May 2005, five months after the tsunami struck, parliament enacted a law to set up a Disaster Management Centre (DMC).

But as the tragic events of Nov. 25 show, the island is a long way away from preparedness. No early warning was issued before the gale force winds swept ashore despite all the investments in disaster preparedness.

Pradeep Koddippilli, the DMC assistant director-in-charge of early warnings, told IPS that the centre had not received any warning from the meteorology department tasked with assessing dangerous weather events. 'We kept contacting them repeatedly through the 25th, but there was no warning,' he said.

Despite the millions spent on setting up early warning towers and networks, a recent assessment by the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released in November said that the meteorology department, in fact, lacked the technical capacity to predict rainfall and fast moving weather patterns.

'The U.N. assessment confirms the technical capacity of the department of meteorology needs to be further developed in order to enable it to deliver reliable quantitative rain forecasts,' said the report titled ‘Disaster Response and Preparedness Assessment Mission to Sri Lanka’.

Experts told IPS that multiple dissemination systems are at the disposal of the DMC - ideal for a country where communication infrastructure is poor in rural areas.

In addition to the 67 warning towers set up island-wide, the DMC can also tap into the wide network of public officials at the village level, volunteers with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, secure satellite communications and, at least, one national mobile network to send out alerts.

'You cannot say what is the best system because each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. What is important is to have several systems to make sure vulnerable communities receive warnings in time,' Suranga Kahandawa, disaster management specialist at the World Bank, told IPS.

However, none of the networks was working when the gale struck, and there was no warning. Experts said that awareness on how to respond to different warning levels was also poor among communities.

'We need to raise community awareness levels so that they understand clearly the various levels of public messages,' Indu Abeyarathne, project manager (early warning) at the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, said.

Abeyarathne said many tend to mistake initial alerts as an evacuation order. A typical reaction was seen this week when rumours spread in some parts of the country of a tsunami, when the DMC had announced it would be conducting a drill on Dec. 20 afternoon.

While the psychological scars are healing with time, the biggest demon of all appears to be the one of unpreparedness for the next natural disaster.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service