Schools in Galle, some in Colombo were closed today. The newspaper headlines did not, to the extend that I read them, show any methodical movement of people to higher ground and safe spaces. They showed people who were confused, running away with their belongings and praying in places of worship. The religious may find solace in prayer, but Government cannot be hostage to the foibles of the gods. This is precisely why we were repeatedly told that disaster management plans are in place and that the next tsunami, should or when it occurred, would find Sri Lanka well prepared to meet the emergency.
This myth has already been questioned.
What I found interesting about the hours from 6 – 8.30 last night and again from around 5.30 to 7 this morning was that my primary mode of information on earthquakes and tsunami warnings came from SMS alerts. They came from two sources but from multiple phones. The two sources were Reuters news alerts on Dialog and JNW news, which I also received on Dialog. The third was the same SMSs recirculated amongst friends and colleagues.
I have about 35 incoming messages for this period and I must have sent at least twice that number to friends with mobiles I did not know were subscribes to either SMS news alerts service.
I’ve reviewed and written about the JNW SMS news service many times on this blog, and I must say that I found it to be a tad more useful than the Reuters news alerts, for which I registered free about two or three months ago. From the first alert on Reuters of an earthquake to the first tsunami warning took well over an hour on my number (I was in Colombo 7) and after that, there were a lot of SMSs with quotes from officials in the Disaster Managament Centre that weren’t terribly useful after one knew about the tsunami warning.
Far more useful may have been to send some basic guidelines about what to do, even where to go to, useful websites with updated information (the Department of Meteorology has a rather suspect website that looks as if it was done on Frontpage 98 that gives tsunami alerts, tellingly, in English and Sinhala only) or some hotline numbers (Colombo as well as regional) to call if one wanted more information.
Basic stuff that many around me didn’t know.
Chamath Ariyadasa, the Editor of JNW, has written an insightful account of his experiences last evening in responding to the tsunami warnings through SMS alerts. There’s already been a lot of discussion on the use of SMS’s in emergencies and in early warning.
I had also read about the use of cell broadcasts – so that all users of a mobile network in a given area would get SMS’s delivered in a manner that bypassed network congestion. Did this occur in the areas most vulnerable to the tsuanmi?
While I got a steady stream of SMS’s – there was no way I could tell when they were sent out. I could send out SMS’s through my phone, but by around 6.15, the voice network was clogged in Colombo 7 all the way to Nugegoda and calls down South were impossible.
Clearly, SMS is here to stay and next to radio is perhaps the most accessible means of disseminating information rapidly amongst a large population (TV doesn’t really work – needs electricity, needs to be switched on and no one lugs them around for news alerts). The tsunami warning scenario yesterday was the first time in Sri Lanka where my primary mode of news and information on an unfolding situation spread over a couple of hours was through SMS.
It may be a harbinger of things to come.