Public Trust in Times of Crisis: Reflections on April 11 Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning

Entrance to Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo, Hawaii, photo by Nalaka Gunawardene, Jan 2007

Five years ago, on a visit to the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo, Hawaii, I played an interesting simulation game: setting off an undersea earthquake and deciding whether or not to issue a tsunami warning to the many countries in and around the Pacific.

The volunteer-run museum, based in ‘the tsunami capital of the world’, engages visitors on the science, history and sociology of tsunamis. The exhibits are mostly mechanical or use basic electronic displays, but the messages are carefully thought out.

The game allowed me to imagine being Director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC), a US government scientific facility in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, where geophysicists monitor seismic activity round the clock. When the magnitude exceeds 7.5, its epicentre is located and a tsunami watch is set up. Then, combining the seismic, sea level and historical data, PTWC decides if it should be upped to a warning.

Tsunami simulation game - low tech, high lesson

The museum game allows players to choose one of three locations where an earthquake happens — Alaska, Chile or Japan — and also decide on its magnitude from 6.0 to 8.5 on the Richter Scale.

This is an instance where scientists must quickly process large volumes of information and add their own judgement to the mix. With rapid onset hazards like tsunamis, every second counts. Delays or inaction can be costly — but false alarms don’t come cheap either.

I played the game thrice, and erring on the side of caution, issued a local (Hawaiian) evacuation every time. If it were for real, that would have caused chaos and cost the islanders a lot of money.

In fact, those who make decisions on tsunami alerts or warnings have to take many factors into account – including safety, economic impact and even political fall-out.

After playing the simulation game, I can better appreciate the predicament government officials who shoulder this responsibility. They walk a tight rope, balancing short-term public safety and long term public trust in the entire early warning system.

This is how I open a new op ed essay that reflects on the Indian Ocean undersea quake on 11 April 2012, and the tsunami watch that followed.

Taking Sri Lanka as the example, but sometimes referring to how other Indian Ocean rim countries reacted to the same situation, I raise some basic concerns that go beyond this individual incident, and address fundamentals of disaster early warning and information management in the Internet age.

Another except:
“So was the tsunami warning and coastal evacuation on April 11 justified? This needs careful, dispassionate analysis in the coming weeks. ‘Better safe than sorry’ might work the first few times, but let us remember the cry-wolf syndrome. False alarms and evacuation orders can reduce public trust and cooperation over time.”

In particular, I focus on nurturing public trust — which I call the ‘lubricant’ that can help move the wheels of law and order, as well as public safety, in the right direction.

Read full essay on Groundviews.org:
Nurturing Public Trust in Times of Crisis: Reflections on April 11 Tsunami Warning

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