Reflections on the tsunami scare

On Wednesday afternoon at 3.38 pm Bangkok time a massive earthquake at the bottom of the Indian Ocean was felt throughout Asia and in parts of Africa. The initial reading of 8.9 on the Richter scale had this pegged as one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history, although it was soon downgraded to 8.5-8.6 — still very big. To give some context, the earthquake that caused the Boxing Day Tsunami, which killed more than 180,000 people, measured 9.1-9.3 and the one that rocked Japan last year was 9.0.

News of the quake broke almost instantly on Twitter, firstly as people started reporting feeling it and then as quake monitoring agencies started posting up the details. Almost as soon as it happened we knew what it was, where it was and roughly how big it was. News agencies were hot on the case and within minutes Twitter had come alive with a sense of purpose.

Using Twitter was the easiest way to track information coming in as an Indian-Ocean-wide tsunami warning was issued and then reissued later on after a strong aftershock. This was really a valuable lesson in the importance of social media in disaster response and it came just a few days after the British government unveiled a scheme to enhance the use of social media in this very field.

Smartphone apps, video game technology and Twitter feeds are to be recruited to help survivors of disasters as part of a British government scheme aimed at making increased use of social networking technology in rescue work after earthquakes, floods and famines.

On of the key points of the scheme is this:

Twitter and social media channels to reach those affected, including direct guidance on medical issues.

Despite the general sense of panic and confusion I thought people really made an effort to ensure that only the most reliable information was shared. We've seen before how quickly events can become distorted with the spread of misinformation, but other than some confusion over the tides, for the most part people seemed to stay on point.

Indonesian TV coverage was pretty good and I tuned into Metro TV and TVOne for live reports right away. Thai TV channels, however, were caught in an awkward situation as the earthquake happened during a royal funeral. This meant that one of the essential tools for providing information to the general public was very much underutilised, which was a great shame.

As Saksith says in another informative post over on Siam Voices, "[W]hen the first warnings about a potential tsunami were issued, all TV channels stayed on the ceremony."

If we looks at Wednesday's quake as an on-the-job test of mechanisms in place to deal with natural disasters, we can see that in Thailand there is still a lot of work to be done.

So what prevented the broadcasters from pulling out of a royal ceremony to cover an urgent emergency situation, even though they had the apparent freedom to do so? ThaiPBS deputy director Vanchai Tantivitayapitak wrote on Facebook that the decision to pull out of the royal ceremony coverage required “presence of mind and courage” – a clear hint at a deeper-lying problem.

Since this was an funeral involving a member of the royal family, it was social pre-emptive obedience that prevented the terrestrial TV channels from reporting on the tsunami warning anytime sooner.

Quick off the mark to talk to the people was Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who gave a statement reassuring people that there was little threat from a large tsunami — this was true — and saying that the local authorities had the situation under control. As far as I saw, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra didn't address the nation until much later, at 8 pm, after the tsunami warning was lifted.

It was fortunate that despite the massive size of the quake that no large tsunami was formed. This was due to the nature of the quake itself.

A horizontal shift of the seabed at the Indo-Australian plate was large enough to cause the quakes, but as happened in 2004, it would have taken a vertical movement between the boundaries of 2 plates to displace the sort of level of water that could cause a major tsunami.

Indonesia lies on the volatile Pacific Ring of Fire, an area of seismic activity where most of the world’s earthquakes happen. Asia is the world’s most disaster-prone continent as well as being home to some of its poorest populations. (Plan International)

What were your thoughts on the quake and how information was shared on new and traditional media?

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