Faulty tsunami warning system in Phuket worries locals

At present, the Phuket towers' early-warning systems are tested every Wednesday. PHOTO: THE NATION/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK
At present, the Phuket towers' early-warning systems are tested every Wednesday. PHOTO: THE NATION/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK

PHUKET (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Since a deadly tsunami struck Phuket in 2004, local people have trained their ears to listen to any alerts from the warning towers, only to learn that the system does not work properly.

"I don't have much confidence in the warning towers system," lamented Ms Kantima Datthuyawat, a masseuse on Kamala Beach in Thailand's Phuket province. She said she always paid close attention to warning sounds from a nearby tower, but she was usually disappointed.

"Sometimes, the sound volume is so low that it's buried in the sound of waves," Ms Kantima said. "And sometimes, the sound from the tower intermittently is lost."

She urged the authorities to check the warning tower to boost public confidence in the early-warning system so that lives can be saved when disaster strikes.

Fears of a tsunami are growing among the people in Phuket after a 7.4-magnitude earthquake and seismic wave recently wreaked havoc in Sulawesi, Indonesia, killing over 1,500 people.

In Phuket, 19 warning towers were erected after tidal waves hit six provinces on Thailand's Andaman coast in 2004, killing more than 5,000 people including foreign tourists. The Indian Ocean tsunami was triggered by a magnitude 9.15 earthquake off Indonesia, leaving around 226,000 people dead or missing in Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and nine other countries.

At present, the Phuket towers' early-warning systems are tested every Wednesday.

"I have been following the testing all along. So, I can tell that the system has problems," said Mr Yeehad Dendayong, a beach-bed provider. He said the authorities should not take these problems lightly because Kamala beach - where he works - attracts many tourists.

"If something happens and the sirens are too low to hear, these tourists may not be able to escape in time," Mr Yeehad said.

Mr Apichai Mohammad, a former Public Health official, said that when the towers were first erected, the system seemed to work fine.

"In the past, the towers sent out a clear and loud sound, loud enough for the whole village to hear," he said. But these days, the sound from the tower was hardly audible. "The sound volume is about 10 per cent," he said.

The chance of an imminent repeat tsunami in the Andaman Sea is remote, while the tsunami risk in the Gulf of Thailand is even smaller, nearly impossible, say leading seismologists in the wake of tsunami fears in Thailand triggered by the recent devastation in Indonesia.

"Interviews with older people in the Andaman provinces found that even the oldest among them could not remember a tsunami disaster ever hitting the Andaman coast in their lifetime before the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, so we can conclude that the return period for a tsunami in the Andaman Sea is over 100 years," said Dr Paiboon Nuannin, geophysics lecturer at Prince of Songkhla University's Faculty of Science.

Nevertheless, say experts, the authorities, business sector and citizens in tsunami-risk areas should swiftly and strictly follow disaster response and evacuation plans.

Hi-tech earthquake monitoring systems and tsunami monitoring buoys in the oceans provide alerts on tsunamis almost instantly. But if the authorities and the public do not know how to properly follow emergency procedures, say experts, the loss of life, injuries and damages from both the natural disaster and a poorly organised evacuation could be substantial.

"It is very important that the authorities have clear orders and procedures in an emergency response plan, that the warning system is widely accessible, and that people take the emergency response drill seriously and fully comply with official procedures," Dr Paiboon stressed.

"In the real situation of a tsunami disaster on the Andaman coast, the disaster warning and evacuation must be completed within 20 minutes after the tsunami is generated, as we have only 30 to 60 minutes before the wave hits the beaches," he said.

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