August 27, 2006

Sri Lankans Take Tsunami Warnings into their Own Hands

By Simon Gardner

PERALIYA, Sri Lanka -- In a small room up a rickety staircase in a tsunami-damaged building on Sri Lanka's south coast, Roshan Waduthantri sits glued to an earthquake warning Web site and monitors cable TV channels.

"Look, there has been a quake in the Scotia Sea," he said, monitoring U.S. Geological Survey Web site "We monitor all day and all night, and if there is a major earthquake, we tell the local community."

More than 1- years have passed since a tsunami left 230,000 people dead or missing across Asia, including 35,000 in Sri Lanka.

But there is still no pan-Asian tsunami warning system.

So residents in the southern town of Peraliya, where around 1,000 people died when a passenger train was swamped by the tsunami and dozens of locals were swept to their deaths, have taken matters into their own hands.

Waduthantri and seven residents take turns to monitor the airwaves, cable television channels and earthquake warning Web sites around the clock at their own Community Tsunami Early Warning Center.

The center, set up with private donations from foreign nationals, is sandwiched between ramshackle temporary shelters and the ruins of homes.

The broken hull of a fishing boat smashed by the 2004 tsunami sits on the roadside opposite the center as a grim reminder.

Many of Sri Lanka's survivors are still living on government handouts of rice and lentils.

To make matters worse, renewed fighting between Tamil Tiger rebels and the government in the east has displaced thousands of people trying to rebuild their lives after the tsunami.

There has been a fall in tourist numbers to southern beach resorts in coastal communities like Peraliya, which have long depended on foreign tourism dollars.


Tsunami evacuation route signs, marked with symbols of a cresting wave, dot the main coastal road in Peraliya with warnings to residents to stay on paths inland in case of a tsunami.

A tsunami that killed more than 600 people in Indonesia in July underlined deficiencies in relaying information during disasters -- and how difficult it can be to get the message to small, remote villages.

"When there is an alert, we check to see how serious it is. We let the authorities know and we have loudspeakers to let the surrounding community know," Waduthantri said, pointing to radio communication equipment.

"But often we can't reach the meteorological office (responsible for issuing tsunami warnings). What to do?"

The government says it aims to erect warning towers along the coast, and has three sea level gauges positioned so far. But for now it is relying on others for warnings.

"These sea level systems and buoys are not operational fully, so we rely on Japan's Meteorological Agency and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii for warnings," said Meteorology Department Director Gardi Darmaratne.

But the government does not want ad-hoc tsunami warning centers handing out advice to local communities.

"Only the Met Department is authorized to give tsunami warnings and evacuation orders. They cannot do it. It is illegal. That creates unnecessary panic," Darmaratne said.

Residents in Peraliya, however, trust the local system.

"We feel safe now, because the people in this center are continuously monitoring, and the lights are on 24 hours," said 63-year-old grandmother L.H. Aryawathi, who lives in a small shack wrapped in plastic sheeting donated by the United Nations.

"These children are monitoring all day and informing us if there is any threat. Otherwise I wouldn't settle here by the sea," she added, as waves crashed onto the beach across the road.

(With reporting by Ranga Sirilal in COLOMBO)