PHUKET: The earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan last month once again forces us here in Phuket to review our readiness for a potential repeat of the events of December 2004.
The death toll from the 9.0-magnitude quake off the coast of Honshu is now approaching 12,000, with more than 16,000 people listed as missing.
The entire world empathizes with the Japanese people and waits to see if the heroic workers at the badly-damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima will be able to contain what is likely to go down in history as the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
It goes without saying that it’s better to prevent a disaster than trying to mitigate the effects of one, but contrary to some sensationalist media reports it is impossible to predict where and when seismic events will occur.
Science can tell us, however, which areas are more at risk. Unfortunately, Phuket lies in such a zone, a fact that we became more than aware of in 2004.
No people on the planet were more aware of the risks of a tsunami, or better trained for an evacuation, than the people of Miyagi prefecture.
While this training saved thousands of lives, the proximity of the earthquake’s epicenter to the shore made it impossible for many thousands more to reach higher ground before the inundation.
Fortunately for Phuket, we are located far enough away from the Sunda Trench fault zone to conduct a successful, wide-scale evacuation if necessary – provided that our early warning system is operational, effective and trusted by people in risk areas.
Efforts by the United States government to set up an early warning system with tsunami detection units in the Indian Ocean were laudable, but, with the exception of India and Thailand, regional efforts to continue this work have been almost a complete failure – most notably in Indonesia, the country at greatest risk.
As the years since the 2004 disaster have taught us, maintenance of an early warning system is technically difficult and expensive work, the type of endeavor easily undermined by unstable politics, corruption and difficult-to-prevent vandalism on the high seas.
However, the deployment of two new warning buoys late last year and the establishment of an Andaman Region Disaster Warning Center here in Phuket [see page 3, current issue of the Phuket Gazette] are positive signs that our level of preparedness is far higher than it was in 2004. And for now it looks likely to improve, albeit at a pace slower than what its importance deserves.
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