Geography lesson that saved many lives: The story of Tilly Smith and Asian Tsunami of 2004

ISDR image

Today, 10 October, is the International Day for Disaster Reduction. The theme this year is “Disaster Risk Reduction Begins at School”.

This year’s campaign, spearheaded by UN International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction aims “to inform and mobilize Governments, communities and individuals to ensure that disaster risk reduction is fully integrated into school curricula in high risk countries and that school buildings are built or retrofitted to withstand natural hazards.”

Buried beneath this development jargon that UN agencies are so fond of is something very important: sensitising the next generation about living with hazards can help make our societies better able to cope with disasters when they do happen.

And you never know when an informed and alert school kid could save the day — and many lives.

A good example came from Thailand when the Indian Ocean Tsunami arrived without any public warning on 26 December 2004.


Tilly Smith, an eleven-year-old British schoolgirl, was on holiday on Maikhao Beach in Thailand with her family when the tsunami hit. Just a few weeks earlier, she had studied tsunamis in school — and immediately recognized the signs of the receding sea as a sign of an impending disaster. She warned her parents, which led to all the hotel guests being rapidly moved from the beach.

This simple, timely action by a single schoolgirl saved the life of dozens of people. Tilly’s story highlights the critical importance of basic education in preventing the tragic impacts of natural disasters.

Watch her story on YouTube:

This 5 min video, produced by UN/ISDR in 2005, is available in English, French and Spanish. Watch the English version on their website, which is now hidden under all that bureaucratic babble:
Higher resolution WMV file – more suited for broadband Internet connections
Lower resolution WMV file – will play better on narrowband Internet connections

According to the Wikipedia, Tilly’s family have declined requests to be interviewed by commercial and national broadcasters, but Tilly has appeared at the United Nations in November 2005, meeting Bill Clinton the UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Relief, and at the first year anniversary in Phuket, as part of the campaign to highlight the importance of education.

In December 2005, Tilly was named “Child of the Year” by the French magazine Mon Quotidien. On the First Anniversary of the Official Tsunami Commemorations at Khao Lak, Thailand on December 26, 2005, she was given the honour of closing the ceremony with a speech to thousands of spectators which read in part:

National Geographic online: Tsunami Family saved by school girl’s geography lesson

BBC Online: Award for tsunami warning pupil

Playing games on disasters: we do and we understand!

Today, 10 October, is the International Day for Disaster Reduction. So we’re going to talk about playing games on disasters.

Yes, that’s right: games. Disasters are serious phenomena, but there’s no reason why disaster awareness and preparedness have to be all dull and dreary.

There’s a old Chinese saying: “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” Disaster preparedness and training are now moving more into the realm of understanding by doing — simulations or drills for community evacuation, and games that allow players to prevent or manage a disaster.

I first played such a game in January 2007 when, while in Honolulu for a conference, I took the day off and flew to Hilo where the Pacific Tsunami Museum is located. The volunteer-run museum, based in what is known as the tsunami capital of the world, engages local people and foreign visitors (including curious US mainlanders) on the science, history and sociology of tsunamis.


A basic game there allows a visitor to be play the role of Director of Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) , a US government institute that monitors seismic activity and has a mandate to issue alerts, watches or warnings to all countries in and around the Pacific Ocean. The 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.

In the real PTWC, five geophycisists are on duty round the clock. If the magnitude exceeds 7.5, the epicentre is located. If it’s in an area likely to cause a tsunami, a tsunami watch is sent to nearby coasts and a tsunami watch is set for areas with a travel time more than three hours away. Messages are sent to the tide observers for reports on the first wave, and telemetered water level gauges are checked. It’s by quickly assessing the seismic, sea level and historical data that scientists at PTWC decide if a warning is needed for areas already placed under a tsunami watch.


Since the system was set up in 1947, it has never missed warning of a damaging tsunami, but there have been a number of very expensive evacuations that turned out to be unnecessary. “These precautions are needed to ensure public safety, but scientists are working to minimise unnecessary warnings without ever missing a hazardous event,” the Tsunami Museum panel explained.

It’s revealing to play the role of a scientist who must quickly marshal lots of information and decide on whether or not to issue a warning. The cost of inaction can be high — but a false alarm doesn’t come cheap either.

I played the game three times, and each time erred on the side of caution — costing the hapless Hawaiian tax payers lots of money.

In real life, those who have their finger on the alert/warning button have to take many considerations into account. Repeated false alarms can erode public confidence in early warning systems. But suppressing a warning on a real breaking disaster — such as what happened in Thailand when the Indian Ocean Tsunami broke in December 2004 — can be truly devastating.

I don’t envy those who have to make this decision as part of their daily work. But after playing the game, I appreciate their challenges a great deal better.

Read my SciDev.Net essay (Dec 2005) The Long Last Mile on challenges in communicating early warnings on disasters

Read more about Tsuamis on Wikipedia