It’s an earthquake, stupid: Reflections on Virginia’s 5.8 tremble on Aug 23

Map courtesy Christian Science Monitor
I’ve been travelling for 25 years, but never once experienced an earthquake. Oh, I regularly visit places located in highly seismically active zones: Japan, Indonesia and Nepal among them. However, I’ve never been in the right place at the right time — or should it be ‘the wrong place at the wrong time’?

That was finally corrected with the US East Coast earthquake on 23 August,the last day of my visit to Washington DC, where I’d been staying with a friend in Alexandria, Virginia. Daughter Dhara and I had just finished packing for our long return journey and making ourselves some lunch. Our friends were at work; we were alone with another visitor.

Around 2 pm, and without any warning, the whole house started shaking. The basement made the biggest noise and a cupboard full of glassware next to the dining table rattled quite hard – for a moment I thought it was going to crash forward.

But luckily it didn’t. The noise and vibrations last for about 20-30 seconds. By then I figured that it was an earthquake. We were within a few feet of the front door, so we quick ran outside. Wrong move, we later heard (we should instead have crept under a table and waited for things to settle). But all our neighbours too did the same, rushing out looking all panicked…

Things settled down soon enough, and no further tremours were felt. After a few minutes, we went back inside.

But I was puzzled: the US East Coast is not known to be seismically that active. Yet a few minutes later the US Geological Survey, which monitors earthquakes worldwide, posted an update: this was indeed a magnitude 5.8 quake which was centred in the state of Virginia — the epicentre was only around 50km from where we are at the time. The largest previous earthquake (magnitude 4.8) in this area had occurred in 1875. Smaller earthquakes that cause little or no damage are felt each year or two.

Within an hour of the incident (late by social media standards!), I tweeted: “After 25 yrs of world travel, incl a dozen visits to Japan, I’ve finally experienced a #quake in Virginia, USA. Shaken but not stirred…”

What I didn’t express, until now, is the sense of relief that as quakes go, this was a relatively harmless tremour!

As news started coming in, we heard that the impact had been felt more forcefully in nearby towns and neighbourhoods. Government and corporate offices – including the US Congress and Pentagon (Defence Dept) — evacuated as a precautionary measure. Many shopping malls and other public places closed up in a hurry. The cell phone networks were clogged with too many people calling each other. It was a mild form of panic, something the Californians on the West Coast — so accustomed to tremours in their lives — found amusing.

The US media — perhaps starved of breaking news in the lazy days of Summer — went into overdrive with saturation coverage. Much of it was cacophonous, but some outlets were more informed and measured.

Volunteers help restock shelves in Mineral, Virginia, just a few miles from the epicenter of Aug 23 earthquake - Image courtesy

Among the more perceptive pieces was what an op ed that appeared on and written by Christa von Hillebrandt-Andrade, manager of the Caribbean Tsunami Warning Program of the U.S. National Weather Service and president of the Seismological Society of America, She noted: “Although seismologists, historians and emergency managers have recognized the potential for an earthquake along the East Coast for years, most people were caught by surprise and so responded inappropriately. The ground doesn’t shake as much in the East as it does in California, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands. But because of the great concentration of population and infrastructure in the East, it’s an area of immense risk.”

She added: “Since earthquakes are infrequent in this region, most people don’t know earthquake preparedness measures. Instead of running out of buildings, they should have dropped, covered and held on. Earthquakes are natural phenomena that become disasters when we don’t prepare adequately — or are not educated in proper measures.

“The 2004 tsunami is an example of a rare event catching people unprepared, with catastrophic results. In December of that year, more than 230,000 lives were lost in countries around the Indian Ocean. Residents and tourists were taken by surprise — they were not warned, nor did they recognize the natural signs.”

She also cited the exception to that norm: the British school girl Tilly Smith who was vacationing on a Thai beach that day and recognised the tell-tale signs of the oncoming tsunami. In the wake of the Virginia quake, my Oct 2007 blog post about Tilly has attracted considerable attention.

Read the full article: Quake a wake-up call for Eastern U.S. By Christa von Hillebrandt-Andrade,

Capturing Nature’s Fury: Revisiting Asian Tsunami memories through photographs

Tsunami survivors look at an lbum of family photos in Telwatte, Sri Lanka - Photo by Shahidul Alam

Today marks the 6th anniversary of the Boxing Day Tsunami of December 2004. The occasion is being marked solemnly in many locations hit by the waves all along the Indian Ocean rim countries.

Among them is Peraliya, close to Telwatte, where the worst train crash in railroad history occurred that day — when an overcrowded passenger train was destroyed on a coastal railway in Sri Lanka by the tsunami. The government-owned Sri Lanka Railways will never be able to live down their day of infamy when a packed train headed to disaster with no warning… They have the gumption — and insensitivity — to operate a memorial train today along the same path that led more than 2,000 passengers to a watery grave six years ago.

After six years, most survivors have moved on and rebuilt their shattered lives. Memories are also beginning to fade a bit, but for those directly affected, they will remember 26 December 2004 for the rest of their lives. And we who shared their tragedy and misery will keep reliving the memories through photographs, videos and the growing body of creative writing that the region-wide disaster inspired.

Photographs stand out as possibly the most enduring memory aids of a disaster. As disaster survivors sift through what is left of their homes, family photo albums are among the most cherished possessions they seek to recover. Why are snapshots of frozen moments so powerfully evocative to individuals, communities and the world?

I posed this question in the introductory blurb I wrote for my friend Shahidul Alam‘s chapter on disasters and photography in our 2007 book, Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book.

Titled Capturing Nature’s Fury, the chapter drew on Shahidul’s experiences not only with the tsunami, which he covered in Sri Lanka, but also the earthquakes in Bam, Iran (December 2003) and Kashmir (October 2005), and cyclones and floods in his native Bangladesh.

Shahidul Alam. Photo: Rahnuma Ahmed/Drik/Majority World
Describing the circumstances of the above photo, Shahidul wrote: “In the ruins of Telwatte, where the fateful train disaster had taken place, I came across a family that had gathered in the wreckage of their home. I wanted to ask them their stories, find out what they had seen, but stopped when I saw them pick up the family album. They sat amidst the rubble and laughed as they turned page after page.”

Zooming out, he further reflected:

“I had seen it before. As people rummaged through the ruins of their homes, the first thing they searched for was photographs. Years earlier at a disaster closer to home, I had photographed a group of children amidst the floods of 1988. The children insisted on being photographed. As I pressed the shutter, I realised that the boy in the middle was blind. He would never see the photograph he was proudly posing for. Why was it so important for the blind boy to be photographed?

“Though my entry into photography had been through a happy accident, my choice of becoming a photographer had been a very conscious one. Having felt the power of the image I recognised its ability to move people. The immediacy of an iconic image, its ability to engage with the viewer, its intimacy, the universality of its language, means it is at once a language of the masses, but also the key that can open doors.

“For both the gatekeepers and the public, the image has a visceral quality that is both raw and delicate. It can move people to laughter and to tears and can touch people at many levels. The iconic image lingers, long after the moment has gone. We are the witnesses of our times and the historians of our ages. We are the collective memories of our communities.

“For that blind boy in Bangladesh and for the many who face human suffering but may otherwise be forgotten, the photograph prevents them from being reduced to numbers. It brings back humanity in our lives.”

Read the full chapter: Capturing Nature’s Fury, by Shahidul Alam

Photographer Chuli de Silva’s memories of the Tsunami, recalled six years later

Dec 2007: Asian Tsunami: A moving moment frozen in time

Asian Tsunami+5: How a packed train headed to disaster with no warning…

Scene of Peraliya train disaster - in Dec 2005 and Dec 2009 - Photos courtesy AFP

We tend to think of trains and railways as solid, tough objects. When the Asian Tsunami’s killer waves started rolling in without warning, the coastal residents of Telwatte and Peraliya areas in southern Sri Lanka thought a passing train offered them relative safety. They were dead wrong…

The train’s many tons of steel were no match for the enormous seismic energy that the sea waves were transmitting that day. There is no precise estimate of how many people perished on that train, ironically named Samudra Devi (Queen of the Sea) on the morning of 26 December 2004. The estimate ranges between 1,500 and 2,500 – some bodies were never recovered and washed into the sea. They joined a total of nearly 40,000 people dead or missing in Sri Lanka.

This is how the Wikipedia introduces the incident: “The Queen of the Sea rail disaster, the greatest train crash in railroad history, occurred when an overcrowded passenger train was destroyed on a coastal railway in Sri Lanka by the tsunami which followed the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake. Up to 2,000 people were killed, making it the world’s worst railway accident and eclipsing the previous record set by the Bihar train disaster in India in 1981, when a train had derailed and fell off a bridge, drowning about 800 people.”

Peraliya, scene of world's biggest train disaster
My friend Chanuka Wattegama, engineer turned ICT researcher, has done a detailed analysis of how and why no early warnings were issued anywhere in Sri Lanka that day, thus allowing many preventable deaths to occur. The tsunami, though extremely forceful, impacted only coastal areas and rapid evacuation could certainly have saved lives. He summed up his findings in a chapter on the subject he wrote for Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book that I co-edited with Frederick Noronha two years ago.

This is what he says about the train tragedy, which sounds every bit gripping like a disaster movie script (but alas, was every bit real):

The railway authorities realise that one of their trains is moving down south, towards a risk prone area. They attempt to call the railway stations en route. The train is parked at the Ambalangoda railway station, when the station master’s phone rings constantly. Nobody answers it. Both the station master and his deputy are busy supervising the unloading of some goods from the train. By the time they receive the message, the train had already left the station. They do not have any way of issuing a warning, as the engine drive does not have a mobile phone.

“The train stops sometime later, in the middle of a village that had already been hit by the first waves. Those who are running for their lives assume the train to be a shield against the waves. They are wrong. The next waves hit the train, carrying it away like a child’s toy. The railway tracks get crumpled like a Möbius strip. If it can be called a railway accident, this would have been the worst train accident the world had ever witnessed. It alone costs more then 2,500 lives. Perhaps many of those lives could have saved if only the engine driver has been given a mobile phone.

We didn’t hear of any responsible official resigning or being sacked even after such massive bungling. But now Sri Lanka Railway has the dubious distinction of allowing the biggest train disaster to happen, which could have been prevented with quick thinking and action. Think about this before you next board a train anywhere in Sri Lanka…

Read full chapter: Nobody told us to run, by Chanuka Wattegama

Peraliya train disaster - photo by Shahidul Alam, Drik

Looking back at Asian Tsunami of 2004…and media response

Nalaka Gunawardene talking about 2004 Asian Tsunami

To mark the fifth anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004, TVE Asia Pacific has just released excerpts from an in-depth TV interview I recorded four years ago.

The wide-ranging interview was originally filmed in November 2005 in Bangkok, Thailand, by Thai journalist and film maker friend Pipope Panitchpakdi. He used excerpts at the time for a Thai documentary to mark the first anniversary of the tsunami. It remains one of the best media interviews I have given, for which all credit goes to Pipope.

Selected segments of that interview, in its original English, can now be viewed on TVEAP’s YouTube channel, while the transcript is published on the TVEAP website.

To give a flavour of this belated release of archival material, here are the first two extracts:

Nalaka Gunawardene recalls Asian Tsunami of Dec 2004 Part 1 of 6

Part 2 of 6:

Watch all extracts on TVEAP’s YouTube channel

Reporting disasters: How to keep a cool head when all hell breaks loose

WCSJ London

News by definition looks for the exception. What goes right, and according to plan, is hardly news. Deviations, aberrations and accidents hit the news.

It’s the same with disasters. Reducing a hazard or averting a disaster does not make the news; when that hazard turns into a disaster, that typically tops the news. Yet, as we discussed during a session at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London from June 30 – July 2, 2009, both aspects are important — and both present many challenges to journalists and the media.

The session, titled Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka, saw three science journalists share their own experiences and insights in covering two major disasters in Asia. Richard Stone (Asia News Editor, Science) and Hujun Li (senior science writer with Caijing magazine, China) both spoke about covering the Sichuan earthquake that occurred on 12 May 2008. I spoke on my experiences in covering the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004. The session was chaired by the veteran (and affable) British journalist Tim Radford, who has been The Guardian‘s arts editor, literary editor and science editor.

Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka: L to R: Hujun Li, Nalaka Gunawardene and Richard Stone
Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka: L to R: Hujun Li, Nalaka Gunawardene and Richard Stone
I recalled the post-tsunami media coverage in two phases — breaking news phase (first 7 – 10 days) and the aftermath, which lasted for months. When the news broke on a lazy Sunday morning, ‘Tsunami’ was a completely alien term for most media professionals in Sri Lanka. In newspaper offices, as well as radio and TV studios, journalists suddenly had to explain to their audiences what had happened, where and how. This required journalists to quickly educate themselves, and track down geologists and oceanographers to obtain expert interpretation of the unfolding events. We than had to distill it in non-technical terms for our audiences.

My involvement in this phase was as a regular ‘TV pundit’ and commentator on live TV broadcasts of MTV Channels, Sri Lanka’s largest and most popular broadcast network. Night after night on live TV, we talked about the basics of tsunami and earthquakes, and summed up the latest information on what had taken place. We also acknowledged the limits of science -– for example, despite advances in science and technology, there still was no way of predicting earthquakes in advance.

One question we simply couldn’t answer was frequently raised by thousands of people who lost their loved ones or homes: why did it happen now, here — and to us? Was it an act of God? Was it mass scale karma? As science journalists, we didn’t want to get into these debates — we had to be sensitive when public emotions were running high.

There were enough topics during the breaking news phase that had a scientific angle. Clinically cold as it sounded, the mass deaths required the safe, proper and fast burial of bodies with identities established. The survivors had to be provided shelter, food, safe drinking water and counselling. And when rumours were spreading on the possibility of further tsunamis, both officials and public needed credible information from trusted, competent sources.

Tsunami waves lashing Kalutara beach on western Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004: satellite image courtesy DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite,
Tsunami waves lashing Kalutara beach on western Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004: satellite image courtesy DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite,

After the breaking news phase passed, we had more time to pursue specific stories and angles related to the tsunami. As an environmentally sensitive journalist, I was naturally interested in how the killer waves had impacted coastal ecosystems. Then I heard some interesting news reports – on how some elements of Nature had buffered certain locations from Nature’s own fury.

Within days, such news emerged from almost all Tsunami-affected countries. They talked about how coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes had helped protect some communities or resorts by acting as ‘natural barriers’ against the Tsunami waves. These had not only saved many lives but, in some cases, also reduced property damage. Scientists already knew about this phenomenon, called the ‘greenbelt effect’. Mangroves, coral reefs and sand dunes may not fully block out tsunamis or cyclones, but they can often reduce their impact.

Researching this led to the production of TVE Asia Pacific‘s regional TV series called The Greenbelt Reports, which was filmed at a dozen tsunami impacted locations in South and Southeast Asia. By the time we released the series in December 2006, sufficient time had passed for the affected countries to derive environmental lessons of the tsunami.

The other big story I closely followed was on early warnings for rapid on-set disasters like tsunamis. Some believed that the tsunami caught Indian Ocean rim countries entirely by surprise, but that wasn’t quite true. While the countries of South and Southeast Asia were largely unprepared to act on the tsunami, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) in Hawaii, who had detected the extraordinary seismic activity, did issued a tsunami warning one hour after the undersea quake off western Sumatra. This was received at Sri Lanka’s government-run seismological centre in good time, but went unheeded: no one reacted with the swiftness such information warranted. Had a local warning been issued, timely coastal evacuation could have saved thousands.

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...
Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...
Part of my sustained coverage focused on logistical, technological and socio-cultural challenges in delivering timely, credible and effective early warnings to communities at risk. I did this by writing opinion essays on SciDev.Net and elsewhere, partnering in the HazInfo action research project in Sri Lanka, and leading the Communicating Disasters Asian regional project. A lasting outcome is the multi-author book on Communicating Disasters that I co-edited in December 2007.

All this shows the many and varied science or development stories that journalists can find in the aftermath of disasters. Some of these are obvious and widely covered. Others need to be unearthed and researched involving months of hard work and considerable resources. Revisiting the scenes of disasters, and talking to the affected people weeks or months after the event, often brings up new dimensions and insights.

My own advice to science journalists was that they should leave the strictly political stories to general news reporters, and instead concentrate on the more technical or less self-evident facets in a disaster. During discussion, senior journalist Daniel Nelson suggested that all disaster stories are inherently political as they deal with social disparities and inequalities. I fully agreed that a strict separation of such social issues and science stories wasn’t possible or desirable. However, science journalists are well equipped to sniff out stories that aren’t obviously covered by all members of the media pack that descends on Ground Zero. Someone needs to go beyond body counts and aid appeals to ask the hard questions.

As Hujun Li said recalling the post-Sichuan quake experience, “Politics and science are like twins – we can’t separate the two. What we as science journalists can do is to gather scientific evidence and opinion before we critique official policies or practices.”

Another question we were asked was how journalists can deal with emotions when they are surrounded by so much death and destruction in disaster scenes. Reference was made to trauma that some reporters experience in such situations.

I said: “We are human beings first and journalists next, so it’s entirely normal for us to be affected by what is happening all around us. On more than one occasion in the days following the tsunami, I spoke on live television with a lump in my throat; I know of presenters who broke down on the air when emotions overwhelmed them.”

SciDev.Net blog post: Finding the science in the midst of disaster

And now...the sequels
And now...the sequels
Summing up, Tim Radford emphasized the need for the media to take more interest in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), which basically means preventing disasters or minimising the effects of disasters.

“DRR is perhaps less ‘sexy’ for the media, as it involves lots of policies and practices sustained over time,” he said. “But the potential to do public good through these interventions is enormous.”

As Tim reminded us, disasters already exact a terrible and enduring toll on the poorest countries. This is set to get worse as human numbers increase and climate change causes extreme weather and creates other adverse impacts. Living with climate change would require sustained investments in DRR at every level.

Read Tim Radford on how disasters hit the poor the hardest (The Guardian, 22 May 2009).

The stories are out there to be captured, analysed and communicated. In the coming years, the best stories may well turn out to be on disasters averted or minimised