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 CNN.com

Among the more perceptive pieces was what an op ed that appeared on CNN.com 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, CNN.com

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Asian Tsunami+5: Are we sure there won’t be a surprise next time?

A monumental failure in communication...

This is one of the most memorable cartoons about the Asian Tsunami of December 2004. It was drawn by Jim Morin, the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist of the Miami Herald.

It summed up, brilliantly, one of the biggest shocks associated with that mega-disaster. As I wrote in my op ed essay to mark the fifth anniversary: “It took a while for the tsunami waves, traversing the Indian Ocean at the speed of a jetliner, to reach India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Yet, in this age of instantaneous telecom and media messaging, coastal residents and holiday makers were caught completely unawares — there was no public warning in most locations. Institutional, technological and systemic bottlenecks combined to produce this monumental failure in communication.”

Chanuka Wattegama

My friend Chanuka Wattegama, trained as an engineer and now working as a senior research manager at LIRNEasia, has studied this vital aspect of early warnings. He contributed a whole chapter on the subject to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book that I co-edited with Frederick Noronha two years ago.

After doing a dispassionate analysis of what went wrong in Sri Lanka in the crucial hours just before and during the 2004 tsunami, he asked: “So what remedies one can suggest so that when the next disaster happens — which may or may not be a tsunami — we do not see the same series of events repeated? What exactly is the role that the media can play?”

He outlined five action areas, all of which can be read in his chapter available for free online access (as is the rest of the book).

Here’s an excerpt:

Disaster warning is everyone’s business: Life for most of us would have been easier had the government taken full charge of disaster warnings. Unfortunately, the things do not work that way. These are some of key stakeholders and they have specific roles that they can play:

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

• The scientific community: Develop the early warning systems based on their expertise, support the design of scientific and systematic monitoring and warning services and translate technical information to layman’s language.
• National governments: Adopt policies and frameworks that facilitate early warning, operate Early Warning Systems, issue warnings for their country in a timely and effective manner.
• Local governments: Analyse and store critical knowledge of the hazards to which the communities are exposed. Provide this information to the national governments
• International bodies: Provide financial and technical support for national early warning activities and foster the exchange of data and knowledge between individual countries.
• Regional institutions and organizations: Provide specialized knowledge and advice in support of national efforts, to develop or sustain operational capabilities experienced by countries that share a common geographical environment.
• Non-governmental organizations: Play a critical role in raising awareness among individuals and organizations involved in early warning and in the implementation of early warning systems, particularly at the community level.
• The private sector: Play an essential role in implementing the solutions, using their know-how or donations (in-kind or cash) of goods or services, especially for the communication, dissemination and response elements of early warning.
• The media: It has to play an important role in improving the disaster consciousness of the general population, and disseminating early warnings. This can be the critical link between the agency that offer the warning and the recipients.
• Communities: These are central to people-oriented early warning systems. Their input to system-design and their ability to respond ultimately determines the extent of risk associated with natural hazards.

And here’s his conclusion:
“Technology is important. The sole reason behind the seemingly incredible advancements that have happened in the field of human development is the spurt in the growth of new technology. However without people to handle it properly, the technology per se can achieve little. What we can expect a sophisticate earthquake detecting device to do, if there are no human beings to take note what it indicates? So, while giving technology its due position, let us focus on the people-side of the problems. “

Spoken like an uncommon engineer, for sure.

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

Asian Tsunami+5: It’s governance, stupid!

Kalutara beach in south-western Sri Lanka before & during the 2004 tsunami - Satellite image courtesy Digital Globe

This montage of satellite images was taken by the DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite. It shows a portion of the south-western coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalutara, some 40km south of the capital Colombo. The lower image was taken on Sunday 26 December 2004, at 10.20 am local time, shortly after the moment of impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami that wreaked havoc in South and Southeast Asia that day. For comparison, we have an image of the same location on a normal day a few months earlier.

The tsunami was one of the most widely photographed and videographed disasters in history. In fact, it marked a turning point for citizen journalism in Asia.

For many of us in the media and communication sectors, this was the biggest story of our lives. Because the killer waves hit numerous coastal locations in several countries, this disaster’s ‘Ground Zero’ was scattered far and wide. Not even the largest news organisations could see, hear and capture everything. Everyone had to choose.

And not just geographically, but thematically too, the tsunami’s impact was felt across sectors, issues and concerns. That provided both ample scope and many challenges for journalists, aid workers and others who rushed to the multiple scenes of disaster.

But there was a downside. Because the tsunami’s scale was so vast and its effects spread so wide, no single individual or organisation could comprehend the full picture for months. For many of us in the Indian Ocean rim, culturally unfamiliar with tsunamis, it was as if a Godzilla had stomped through our coasts. Grasping the full, strange phenomenon was hard.

Countries affected by 2004 Dec tsunami - map courtesy BBC

Journalists, professionally trained to hastily produce ‘first drafts of history’, found it a bit like being close to a huge tapestry still being woven: we all absorbed parts of the unfolding complexity. We reported or analysed those elements that held our interest. But we were too close, and too overwhelmed, for much perspective.

Five years on, we can ‘zoom out’ more easily to see the bigger picture. When I do, one overarching factor stands out as the most important and lasting lesson of the tsunami: the need for better governance.

The absence of good governance was at the root of most major stories about the tsunami. It cut across every level in our societies — politics, public institutions, corporate sector, humanitarian agencies, academia and civil society.

This is the thrust of my latest op ed essay, written in time for the tsunami’s fifth anniversary being marked today. I briefly recall three aspects of the tsunami that I covered as a journalist — early warnings, deluge of aid and environmental lessons — to show how the absence of governance aggravated matters in each case.

The lesson is not simply one of academic interest: it holds many practical, survival level implications. I end by quoting Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, who argues that democracy and good governance are also the most important elements in climate change adaptation.

Read the full essay online:
Media Helping Media (UK): Tsunami five years on – the lessons learned
OneWorld.Net (UK): The big lesson of the tsunami: better governance
DNA newspaper (India: condensed version): The Tsunami Effect
Groundviews.org: Better governance – The Biggest Lesson of 2004 Tsunami
Himal Southasian Online edition: Better Governance: The biggest lesson of 2004 tsunami
The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka): Better Governance: The biggest lesson of 2004 tsunami

Ahead of tsunami, journalist foresaw coastal disaster in Sri Lanka: “A Catastrophe Waiting to Happen”

Dilrukshi Handunnetti in Deep Divide film

Contrary to a popular belief, journalists don’t enjoy being able to say ‘I told you so!’. They much rather prefer if their investigative or analytical work in the public interest are heeded in time.

A few months before the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, my friend and journalist Dilrukshi Handunnetti wrote an investigative story on how coastal zone management laws and regulations were openly flouted by developers. She cautioned that it was a ‘disaster waiting to happen’

She had no idea how forcefully her point will be driven home before that year ended.

“Little did anyone realise the price coastal communities would have to pay for the greed of a few dozen developers,” she said after the tsunami, interviewed for Deep Divide, a South Asian documentary on environmental justice that TVE Asia Pacific produced in 2005.

Watch Deep Divide – story from Sri Lanka:

Here’s the blurb I wrote at the time to promote the story:

Sri Lanka’s economic activities are concentrated in coastal areas: 80 per cent of the tourist related activities are found there, along with one third of the population. Seeking to accelerate economic growth, the Sri Lankan government took measures to develop the island’s coastal regions. Shrimp and prawn farming was encouraged, while many incentives were provided for developing tourist resorts along the island’s scenic beaches.

As the shrimp exports grew and tourist arrivals increased, there was a ‘cost’ that only local residents and a few environmentalists cared about: mangrove forests were cleared, coral reefs were blasted, and the coastal environment was irreversibly changed.

Shrimp farming damaged mangroves, aggravated tsunami impactCoastal zone management regulations and guidelines were openly flouted by developers. Local communities were the last to benefit from this development boom — they watched silently as their fish catch dwindled and their coastal environment was pillaged. But little did anyone realise the price coastal communities would have to pay for the greed of a few dozen developers.

When the tsunami struck, there were very few natural barriers to minimise its impact. More than 40,000 people died or went missing, while hundreds of thousands lost their homes and livelihoods. It was the biggest single disaster in the island’s history.

Dilrukshi reflects: “Post-tsunami, people realised that the mangroves have protected these little, you know, landmass. And where you find a little bit of protected mangroves, you also find the landmass protected.”

She adds: “I think we have committed lot of excesses and we have been made to answer for those sins. Hereafter, we cannot afford to not do it right.”

Filmed on location in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Deep Divide explores the reality of environmental justice in South Asia — home to 500 million people living in absolute poverty, or 40 per cent of the world’s total poor. Everywhere, it finds environmental injustice. This investigative film builds on the work by three local journalists, who act as our guides to understanding the complexities and nuances of development amidst poverty and social disparities.

Environment For All book coverThe origins of Deep Divide go back to 2002. Panos South Asia, a regionally operating non-profit organization analyzing development issues, awarded media fellowships to selected journalists from five South Asian countries to explore specific cases of environmental injustice in their countries. They were to investigate issues as varied as land degradation, food and water insecurity, rising pollution, and mismanaged development.

Their findings were initially published in the local media – in the newspapers or magazines they worked for. In 2004, Panos South Asia compiled the articles in a book titled Environment for All. Three stories from this book were adapted into the documentary, directed by Indian film maker Moji Riba.

A Lasting Wave: Looking back at Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004

The undersea quake that triggered the Indian Ocean tsunami on 26 December 2004 was so powerful that it was felt around the globe, as far away as Alaska. Likewise, the killer waves that hammered the coasts of South and Southeast Asia left such a trail of destruction that it was like a lasting, unceasing wave.

On the eve of the mega-disaster’s fifth anniversary, I’ve been busy writing, talking and reflecting on what it meant for me personally, and my media profession and fellow Asians in general. I recently filmed an interview for Thai Public Television (TPBS), where my friend Pipope Panitchpakdi is doing a tsunami+5 documentary.

And I’ve just been talking to Andrew Bast of Newsweek who has written a personalised look-back titled A Lasting Wave.

He was in Sri Lanka at the time of the tsunami, and spent two weeks working as a freelance reporter covering the aftermath for the western media. His piece sums up the mixed bag of lessons and recovery efforts that Sri Lanka, one of the hardest hit countries, has accomplished in the half decade this that momentous day.

An excerpt: “Five years later, life in the affected countries has resumed, and the world has learned immensely valuable lessons about responding to catastrophe. But as with any human endeavor, some opportunities have also been lost.”

Read full text:
A Lasting Wave: Five years after the Indian Ocean tsunami, reflections on what was lost and what was learned. By Andrew Bast, Newsweek

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, http://www.digitalglobe.com

Tsunami waves lashing Kalutara beach on western Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004: satellite image courtesy DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite, http://www.digitalglobe.com

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