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Thailandís State-of-the-Art Warning System A Mystery to Many

Anchalee Kongrut, Bangkok Post, Thailand


In June, Latifah Suib made her first trip to Phuket’s famous Patong Beach on the southern coast of Thailand.

Fearing another tsunami, the 37-year-old housewife from Kuala Lumpur prayed every night, asking Allah to protect her family. The fact she was staying in a hotel next to a warning tower did not ease her fear. “No one has told me what the tower is or what it can do for us,” she said.

The only evidence of disaster preparation were street signs with pictures of a big wave, and a graphic pointer telling people to move 300 meters up to a tsunami evacuation site.

“I am clueless,” Suib said. “The sign tells us to move up. Up to where… up to the sky perhaps?”

Latifah is not alone in her confusion. Two-and-a-half years after the fatal tsunami, the Thai government’s 100-million baht warning system remains a mystery to many Thais and tourists, who are unsure how the system works or if it will work at all. False alarms and a reluctance of hotels to hook up to the system have raised further questions about whether Thailand will be prepared for the next big one.

After the tsunami, the government of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ordered the installation of warning towers along the six disaster-struck provinces. So far, 79 towers have gone up.

These towers are controlled by the National Disaster Warning Center, the state agency overseeing the system from Nonthaburi, a Bangkok suburb.

The center obtains earthquake reports and tsunami warnings directly from international bodies monitoring earthquakes in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The towers will sound alarms only when officials at the center near Bangkok press a button. Not every earthquake generates a tsunami. The center assesses the level of each quake, its origin and proximity to Thailand before issuing a warning.

Despite state-of-art technology, the public is skeptical.

Four months after the tsunami, a false alarm occurred after a technician pushed a wrong button while installing the system. The alarm triggered panic and car accidents in Ban Nam Khem – a fishing village in Phang Nga province where one-fourth of the 6,000 inhabitants perished in the massive waves.

Villagers later sued the company. Officials use a demonstration computer every day to test the system, but the real computer, which is hooked up to the towers, is covered by a cloth.

Meanwhile, the governor of Phuket once pushed the alarm bell for three towers on Patong Beach while trying to show a government minister how the towers worked.

The result was a near stampede, creating car accidents and hurting Phuket’s image, which was only just beginning to recover from the negative publicity surrounding the disaster. Tourism is a critical part of the Thai economy, and the number one source of income in Phuket.

While the Tourism Authority of Thailand touts the warning system to lure back tourists, especially Japanese, many hotels have given lukewarm support.

Less than 10 of the more than 500 hotels in Phuket are linked to the warning system, according to the center. Representatives of three hotels on Patong Beach explained they are already close enough to the towers to hear the warnings.

“That drives me mad. What about tourists who sleep in air-conditioned rooms?” said Dr. Smith Dharmasaroja, founder of the disaster center and an outspoken retired official. A decade ago, Smith warned the public and even government officials that a tsunami would one day hit Phuket and nearby provinces. He was widely ignored.

Even some hotels that have hooked up to the center’s warning system – mostly in Phang Nga province’s Khao Lak – have their doubts.

“I do not trust the government’s warning system. I also have my backup plan,” said Raich, general manager of Le Meridien Khao Lak, a five-star resort that lost 18 guests and staff, including the owner’s daughter, to the deadly waves.

Le Meridien installed 16 closed-circuit cameras with special wave- monitoring sensors. The new equipment, from Australia, will send a signal within one minute if there is an unusual change in waves, Martin said.

Khao Lak is a high-end tourism town north of Phuket, popular among Europeans and wealthy Thais. It was the hardest hit area in Thailand.  His Majesty the King’s nephew also died there.

To the north of Khao Lak is hard-hit Ban Nam Khem, where villagers wonder if the towers will really work.

“After the false alarm, I have never heard these towers make any sound,” said Naikwan Lolieng, owner of a fishing boat in Ban Nam Khem, which has two warning towers.

Like the majority of villagers, Naikwan suffered a big loss. Her fishing boat – which cost about 10 million baht – was smashed by the giant waves.  Compensation and a cheap loan from the state put her back in business.

But Naikwan, a confident-looking woman, said her life has never been the same. “I am constantly panicked,” she said while overseeing workers unloading fish from a trawler docked at the village pier.

More than a century ago, Ban Nam Khem – which means Village of Salt Water in Thai – was a wealthy tin-mining town. After the state cancelled mine concessions half a century ago, miners become fishermen and lived a peaceful life until the tsunami.

“Recently, the head of the village rode a van through our area at night and used loud speakers asking us to prepare for a tsunami drill. I was almost shocked to death. Why couldn’t he come in the morning?” she said. Now, Naikwan runs for safety whenever something unusual happens, such as an electrical blackout.

In Ban Taptawan to the south, Yuttana Kringkamkachornkul, a volunteer house builder, said the government does not care about public trust. “I have never heard the tower make any sound. But it is hard to prove (whether it works) because government people just had these towers built. I have never seen them come back to check it,” said Yuttana, who has lived in the village for more than two years.

Ban Taptawan is where many Moken – or ethnic sea gypsies – have lived for more than 100 years. The tribe suffered few casualties because villagers fled when the water receded and strange waves were seen.

Phang Nga provincial officer Bancha Sookkiew, who oversees all 18 warning towers in the province, said villagers’ lack of trust in the system is warranted. “I myself don’t know much about this warning system,” Bancha said in a telephone interview. “We have to wait for orders from the center in Bangkok.”

Bancha once tried to boost villager’s confidence by asking the center in Bangkok for permission to use the warning tower’s loudspeakers. “So villagers will know the warning towers are functional when they hear music or at least the national anthem from the loudspeaker every morning,” he said.

But the center rejected his request. Officials said the system is functional and that all 79 towers are silently tested every day.

Smith admitted the success of the system depends on public understanding. “The system is good, but people do not know how to react,” the retired meteorologist said.

The center canceled an evacuation drill in April after learning that communities had not been informed.

However, Smith’s major concern is how to monitor a recently discovered undersea mountain in the Andaman Sea. The massive mountain is a new tsunami threat, he said.

Located 400 km from the coast, the massive underwater mountain has a 5 km radius at its base and is more than 2 km in height. It was made by an accumulation of sediment from rivers in Myanmar and Bangladesh and discovered by Russian scientists after the 2004 tsunami, according to Smith.

The mountain is located near an active fault, which means only a minor earthquake could trigger an undersea mudslide, displacing large amounts of water and creating a tsunami. “If it happened, it could hit the Andaman Sea coast within 45 minutes,” Smith said. 

The only existing buoy, a floating device capable of detecting small changes in the pressure of waves, is 800 km from the Thai coast, and wouldn’t detect such a tsunami heading east.

Another buoy closer to the undersea mountain is seriously needed. “The sooner the better,” Smith said in a phone interview. 

If listening to Smith – a self-taught seismologist – is not worrying enough, consider recent scientific research from the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. Scientists there found a “significant” increase of stress in undersea areas where the 2004 tsunami-related earthquake happened. That stress could trigger another earthquake, the Guardian, a British newspaper, reported.

It usually takes an earthquake measuring 8 or more on the Richter scale to trigger a tsunami.

On Dec. 26, 2004, a 9.3-Richter-scale earthquake near Banda Aceh made the undersea plateau shrug. The land thrust upward as much as 40 meters for more than 1,000 km, hoisting up a massive amount of seawater and unleashing as much  energy as 20,000 atomic bombs.

It is impossible to predict when a tsunami will occur. The only certain thing is that they occur in cycles of sometimes 50 or 100 years, according to Smith.

Six southern provinces were hit by a tsunami more than 180 years ago – during the reign of King Rama III – when the only modern technology was Western gun boats, primitive guns and telescopes.

But Smith said it is too optimistic to say that the next tsunami will occur only after the year 2100. What he fears most is that the tsunami in 2004 was so massive that it may have disrupted or shortened the cycle. He compared it to a “hammer smash on glass that is already cracked.”

Since no one can predict when it will happen again, the best thing is to learn how to live with it, according to Gabrielle Iglesias, an expert on disaster management at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) near Bangkok.
The 20-year-old center has worked with communities in flood-prone areas in Sri Lanka and typhoon-vulnerable villages in the Philippines. According to Iglesias, dealing with natural disaster requires more than money, fancy gadgets or behemoth infrastructure. “You build a facility. God will give you a larger storm,” she said.

Iglesias said local villagers can create their own disaster management plans instead of waiting for governments to help with top-down strategies.

After the 2004 tsunami, ADPC contacted villagers to prepare their own evacuation maps and to survey risks in their community. They also urged villagers to prepare “evacuation bags” for every house. Evacuation bags should contain cash, ID cards, title deeds, two drinking-water bottles, instant noodles and clothes.

“It is not easy,” Iglesias said. Villagers found that creating their own disaster management plan requires community participation and hard work. With government, villagers tend listen to officials and experts.
“This is a tough job for us. We will not give a dime to villagers. They have to do it, not us.”

One community which took up the ADPC’s advice was Ban Nam Khem, the village with the highest death toll from the tsunami.

Joining the workshop, Maitree Jongkraichak, a community leader, came back with inspiration. Last month, he launched a community evacuation mapping program.

The villagers’ map looks like a picture drawn by kindergarten kids.
Street lines are wobbly and houses and shops are uneven cubic shapes. White, orange, blue, green and black are splashed on the map. But each color has its own meaning.

“White spots are residential area of Burmese migrants. There are a lot of white boxes,” Maitree said. “We have more and more Burmese migrants moving in to Ban Nam Khem so we must include them in our plan.”

Mapping helped villagers learn of new risks. They realized they only had one main road for an evacuation route for more than 5,000 villagers. They also realized they had vulnerable zones, such as restaurants with explosive gases. A villager recently found that a short-cut alley to the main street was fenced off, as a property owner is reclaiming the plot.

Maitree said Ban Nam Khem plans to ask the state for 8 million baht to build five evacuation towers. The village lies in a vast plain and is far from an elevated evacuation site. Instead of running, vulnerable groups such as the elderly, sick and young could climb up an evacuation tower.
Each tower would be 12 meters tall and could accommodate 400 villagers.  So far, the community has only 300,000 baht.

“It will be a very, very long time before we can have evacuation towers. But we will work on it,” Maitree said.
In the meantime, many villagers have already moved out to new homes on high land, as far as seven or 10 km away.

“People are afraid to live there. Many people moved out. You will not see many people in Ban Nam Khem except Burmese workers,” said Jinda Hemtanond, a 33-year-old villager. Her family survived the tsunami thanks to big banyan trees in front of her house, which helped to block the water.

Jinda moved into new housing nearby donated by the former iTV station. Despite her fears, she usually goes back to the village several times a week.

“My mom refused to leave. So my father stays, too.”

Jinda’s mother is old and has a bad knee after stumbling in the panicked run during the false alarm. Jinda worries about a new evacuation drill that will take place in the next few months.
“I told her to live with us,” Jinda said. “She is so stubborn. She said she loves the village and she and her dad will die there.”

Copyright 2009 IMMF.