|Saturday, 19 February 2005|
Tsunami and our forgotten disasters
by Wg. Cdr. C.A.O. Dirckze (S.L.A.F.Retd.)
Fellow of Fire Engineers U.K. & Fellow of Industrial Security
Sri Lanka has had more than her fair share of "disasters", both natural and man-made in the past 20 years, commencing with the bomb explosion on the Air Lanka aircraft at the BIA Terminal in May 1985 to the devastating tidal wave that created havoc on that fateful morning of the 26th. December 2004.
With the exception of the tsunami, all the other disasters are now history, mere forgotten incidents that have left behind sad and bitter experiences, from which judging by the "management" of the tsunami disaster, we have learnt nothing, in relation to reducing the effects and consequences of such disasters.
Therefore I firmly believe that in another two to four months the tsunami disaster will also be mere history. The tsunami could not have been prevented, but the loss of human life, the loss of property, and most of all the misery caused could have been greatly reduced if there was anything of a disaster management facility that had responded within the first vital 24 hours.
The purpose of this article is to analyze and evaluate the "management" of the tsunami disaster, and to propose the basic "structure" for a national disaster management facility that would reduce the effects and consequences of any future disaster.
This basic structure could be modified and adapted by any organization or institution that is desirous of establishing its own in-house disaster management facility.
In order to evaluate the disaster management facility it is necessary to first define and clarify certain important concepts in relation to the management of disasters.
1. Disaster.... What constitutes a disaster? There have been many definitions, but to my mind the simplest and the most appropriate definition is ..... "a disaster is a sudden and calamitous event that produces great loss of life, material damage, and distress."
The key word in relation to a disaster is "sudden," .... there is no prior warning.... hence the ability of a disaster to create havoc if we are not "prepared".
Therefore the main component in any disaster management facility is "preparedness". The quantum of destruction is indirectly proportional to the state of preparedness. The degree of the State's "preparedness" to mitigate the effects of a disaster is based on its "pre-disaster" and its "post-disaster" strategies.
2. Disaster management.... What is disaster management? "Disaster management is an applied science which seeks, by the systematic observation and analysis of disasters, to improve the measures to prevent, respond, and recover from the effects and consequences of a disaster."
The disaster management strategies are therefore based on the observation and the analysis of previous disasters, preferably in our own country if we have experienced disasters, or from those in other countries.
We have experienced more than our fair share of disasters and hence we are in a position to "analyze" these disasters and formulate our own disaster management facility.
3. Effects and consequences. There are two major components of a disaster that cause loss of life and property.
These two components in relation to the tsunami are, first the direct "effects" such as the loss of life due to drowning, destruction of houses, etc., and the second is the "consequences" as a result of these effects, such as looting, rape, etc.
The reason for this distinction is because in the management of any disaster the mitigation of the effects is the responsibility of the pre-disaster function, and the mitigation of the consequences is the responsibility of the post-disaster function.
4. Incident Commander.... the Incident Commander is the person nominated to be in charge of and to implement all the activities in relation to the required "response" to an incident and the "recovery" measures required to reduce the consequences of a disaster to the minimum.
This appointment should be made prior to the incident, to enable the Incident Commander to be "prepared". He should establish and train his Emergency Teams, check the availability and location of the resources he needs, the resources available with his neighbouring units, etc.
5. "As low as reasonably practicable." This is a very important concept in relation to disaster management. It is the criteria for evaluating the performance of the disaster management facility.
The probable "effects" of a disaster and the likely "consequences" as a result of such effects should be identified, and should be reduced to a level that is both "reasonable" and also "practical" in relation to the available disaster mitigation resources.
The criteria for analyzing the level of efficiency of the disaster management facility is based on the following equation:
Prevention + response + recovery = mitigation to a level "as low as reasonably practicable".
Prevention. Prevention in this context does not imply that the incident could have been prevented. What is required is that the direct "effects" and the resultant "consequences" of the disaster, are reduced to a level as low as reasonably practicable.
The "effects" of the tsunami were the destruction of everything in its wake to a distance of approximately 1.2 kilometres inland from the shore.
The "Consequences" of that effect are such aspects as hunger, shelter, looting, rape, sale of children, breakdown of the communication facilities, etc. The effects of the tsunami could have been reduced by:
a). Legal requirement. It was reported in the print media that there is in existence a regulation that prohibits "constructions within 300 metres of the coast line", and that in "future" the Government will "strictly enforce" this regulation.
Had this requirement been enforced it would have considerably reduced the loss of life and property due to the tsunami.
b). Early warning. Whether a "warning" was given, but not "received" by our institutions is being debated, but the fact is that this information is readily available, for example on the web site "iris".
The duration of the warning was approximately three hours. Taking into consideration that the destruction was mainly to a distance of 100 to 200 metres inland, a warning of three hours would have been adequate to evacuate more than the areas that were effected.
In this context it must be recalled that in relation to the World Trade Centre bomb attack the Police check point at the top of Lotus Road which could have prevented the entry of the LTTE explosive laden vehicle was non operational on holidays, and so was the Seismology Station at Pallekele on this holiday.
c). Natural protection. Mother Nature in her own way provides us protection in the form of the coral reefs and mangroves. I believe that we have for various reasons destroyed these protective barriers.
"Effects." There were no preventive measures to reduce the "effects" of the tsunami to a level as low as reasonably practicable, on the 26th of December, 2004.
Response: Response is the requirement for established and trained Emergency Teams to "respond" to the incident immediately to prevent the "consequences" of the disaster. If this facility was available it could have reduced the "consequences" of tsunami to a large extent.
The Civil Defense Force before it was disbanded in 1999 established and trained such post disaster Emergency Response Teams in all the institutions that were under threat.
These teams were trained in subjects relevant to the probable disaster situation, which were first aid, fire fighting, crowd control, traffic diversion and security of their institutions.
The emergency teams functioned under the command of an Incident Commander appointed by the respective Institutions.
Their main contribution in the event of a disaster was that they could "respond" immediately and reduce if not prevent the "consequences" of the disaster. There was no such "established and trained" response to prevent and reduce the consequences of this tsunami disaster. I specifically emphasize the phrase "established and trained."
Because the Sri Lankan quality of compassion and generosity in the event of a disaster is remarkable. They will risk life and limit to help, but in order to benefit from this asset this potential must be harnessed, trained, and directed.
"Consequences". There was no response facility to prevent looting, dry rations finding their way into the local boutique, children being sold, and even to prevent the rape of the tsunami victims. The consequences of this terrible disaster were certainly not reduced to a level as low as reasonably practicable.
Recovery. Recovery is the ability to return to "normal" life in the shortest possible time. The Central Bank bomb disaster reduced the greater part of Janadhipathi Mawatha to a ghost street, from which it took over a year to return to normal.
In this case it is not merely the reconstruction of buildings, but the rehabilitation of thousands of human beings. It is our shameful experience from previous disasters that materials donated towards the recovery effort did not reach the suffering and needy victims.
In our context recovery should also include the will and commitment of the Government to ensure that in future the effects and consequences of any disaster will be reduced to a level as low as reasonably practicable.
This requires the establishment of a permanent disaster management facility. The major components of such a facility are:
a) Disaster management "policy." To date to the best of my knowledge, there is no central disaster management policy.
A team of foreign experts sponsored by the American Embassy who conducted an extensive training programme on disaster management produced the framework for the proposed disaster management legislature.
But unfortunately this did not see the light of day because of the tussle between two Ministries to gain control of this subject.
b) Disaster management centre. A disaster management centre was established in 1998, a director appointed, and I believe even sent abroad for training. Subsequent to the tsunami disaster it was reported in the print media that this centre was closed in 2001.
c) Incident Commanders. Suitable officers should be appointed as Incident Commanders. They should be able to respond immediately to the incident and take charge of all operations. It is reported that Co-ordinating officers to the effected areas were appointed 9 days after the incident.
d) Disaster management "units." Disaster management "units" should be established at grass roots level. These units should be given basic training in their relevant subjects of disaster mitigation and should be capable of immediately "responding" to the incident. Such units were established and trained by the Civil Defence Force. These units were disbanded in 1999.
It will be appreciated that on that fateful 26th. December 2004, there was NO disaster management policy.
No disaster management centre. No Incident Commander. No disaster management units and the Seismology Station was NOT functioning as it was a holiday.
We were totally unprepared for this disaster. The only asset that we can be very proud of, is the immediate and continued response by the people, at each and every one of all our disasters.
Disaster management facility
"Basic structure". The fundamental structure of the proposed disaster management facility is given in diagram A. This structure is based on an analysis of the disasters we experienced in the past 20 years, and my experience with the Civil Defence Force. The structure has two key components, the operational component and the policy component.
Operational component. The requirement at grass roots level is for a very flexible, trained, and sustainable 'unit' that has the capability to "respond" very quickly.
My experience is that the local policy station area is the best suited for this operational unit, and the Police Officer-in-Charge of that area is the best choice for the roll of Incident Commander.
Within each "unit" volunteer disaster management teams are established at street level, and trained in the basic emergency functions, relevant to their probable disaster scenarios. In the event of any disaster within their police station area the teams will respond immediately and function under the direction and command of their Incident Commander.
In the event of a disaster involving more than one police station area, all the "disaster management units" (police stations) involved in that police division will come under the command of the ASP or SP of that division, and similarly in the event of the disaster involving more than one police division, all the disaster management units involved in those police divisions will come under the command of the SSP of that police district.
This structure is flexible and it provides a large trained man-power base that operates in manageable smaller "units" under the directions of an Incident Commander, and which could be mobilized very quickly even in the event of a disaster of the magnitude of the tsunami.
Policy component. The "Disaster Management Centre' would be the "headquarters" of the total facility.
The primary functions of the director and his staff would be to identify the probable disaster scenarios in relation to the location of the disaster management units, for example floods for the Ratnapura units, landslides for the Haputale units, terrorist attacks for the Colombo units, etc.
Having identified the probable disaster scenarios the director would be required to make a "risk assessment" of each scenario, and implement all necessary measures to reduce the effects and consequences of such disasters to a level "as low as reasonably practicable."
Produced by Lake House