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Lesson not learned: tsunami missing at Bangkok Hospital Phuket

'Resorts to Blame' for Tsunami Warning Failures

Thursday, May 8, 2008
QUESTIONS ARE finally being asked in public about the effectiveness of the Andaman coast tsunami warning system.

More than three years after the tsunami, it is not possible for any resident or visitor to Phuket or any other coastal province to feel as though they are adequately protected.

Phuketwan can reveal that only two Andaman resorts have signed up so far to provide the comprehensive but costly warning service on offer from the National Disaster Warning Centre.

The beach warning tower system that stretches along the coast is imperfect but probably adequate, combined with television and radio, during daylight hours.

But the question that needs to be asked repeatedly is this: what happens if a second tsunami comes at 3am, everybody is asleep, and the radios and television sets have been switched off for hours?

Dr Plodprasop Surasawadee, assistant minister of the Prime Minister's Office, was quoted in the Bangkok Post as saying on Phuket on Wednesday: ''Now, the NDWC is no different from a deserted toilet.

''It cannot be used. The centre has no budget, no manpower and no decision-makers.''

Dr Plodprasop's comments, made at Cape Panwa at the opening of a three-day convention on coral reef research, finally bring the issue of the tsunami warning system out into the open.

In response to questions from Phuketwan today, the Director of the NDWC, Dr Smith Thammasaroj, said: ''I have done my job but I cannot do it alone.''

He said most resorts were reluctant to pay for the in-house warning system. The cost is about 100,000 baht, and it can be shared among several resorts in the same area.

The president of the Thai Hotels Association Southern Chapter, Methee Tanmanatragul, told Phuketwan that more resorts would take on the NDWC warning system if they could be certain that it worked.

''Please ask Dr Smith to keep trying, and to tell us when he has a system that really guarantees everybody's safety.''

Dr Smith was appointed to the role at the NDWC because he had accurately predicted the possibility of a tsunami striking, as it did on December 26, 2004.

Since then, attempts to introduce a foolproof warning system have been beset by financial problems and a lack of cohesion.

While nobody expects another big wave like the one that killed 5395 people in Thailand and about 220,000 elsewhere around the Indian Ocean rim, the possiblity can never be discounted.

A working warning system is essential.

The most appropriate lesson comes from Hawaii, where half a century ago one tsunami was followed by a second, 14 years later.

The Thai tsunami towers, erected along the Andaman Coast after 2004, have not been tested since mid-2007, when some failed to sound.

The impression created at that time by live national television coverage from Patong was that everything functioned well.

Elsewhere along the coast, some tower sirens worked. But there were also groups of officials on beaches who stood waiting alongside towers for sirens that never sounded.

The theft of offshore buoys is always a possibility and the disappearance of electrical wiring from the towers has already proved to be a problem.

No further fullscale tsunami warning tests have been undertaken.

Dr Plodprasop, a former director of the NDWC, was quoted as saying that he would raise the issue with Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

He said the PM would give importance to the centre and improve its efficiency.

The NDWC could no longer issue warnings independently, Dr Plodprasop was quoted as saying.

All alerts had to first be approved by both the Meteorological Department and the Prime Minister's Office.

The resulting delays could cost many lives, and the death toll in Burma from Cyclone Nargis emphasised the importance of an adequate early warning system.

''I am worried that Thailand could face a situation like the tragedy in Myanmar under the current system,'' he said.

Dr Plodprasop said a buoy deployed in the Indian Ocean as part of the warning system is no longer working. The NDWC had no authority to order any agencies to repair it.

''The tsunami-detection buoy [in the Indian Ocean] is out of order now. It is not able to send a signal to the NDWC,'' the Bangkok Post quoted him as saying.

Today Dr Smith confirmed to Phuketwan that one buoy was broken, for unknown reasons. But a second one was still working.

A third buoy was on order.

Dr Smith believes the onus should be on all Andaman resorts to be able to tell tourists that they are adequately protected by a relatively sound 24-hour tsunami warning system.

Dr Smith is highly regarded by the diplomatic community. But he has been denied the funding and support he says is necessary to protect Thailand's Andaman coast from another tsunami.

While there are now plenty of blue and white warning signs that show people which way to run, that question remains to be answered: what if another wave comes at 3am, when everybody is asleep and the television and radio are turned off?

That's what all visitors should ask. And so should all the residents along the Andaman coast.

Are you staying at a resort along the Andaman coast? What do people at your resort say about preparedness for a second tsunami that comes at 3am? Join up at Phuketwan now and tell us, please.

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Sunday January 24, 2021
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