Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sri Lanka: New tremors, old nightmares

By Amantha Perera | Inter Press Service

Janoshini Maurasini shakes like a leaf each time the sea belches a thunderous roar. And the 29-year-old mother of two has good reason to be nervous: Maurasini only narrowly escaped with her life in the Indian Ocean tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004, which killed over 35,000 of her fellow Sri Lankans within minutes.

As giant waves battered the village of Dutch Bar, some 300 kilometres from the capital Colombo along Sri Lanka’s eastern coast, Maurasini had run for her life. But the waves caught up with her. Her husband could only watch helplessly as the monstrous waves dragged her away and tossed her around like a rag doll.

Maurasini does not remember much of the ordeal, except that it felt like being caught in a vicious whirlpool. She had tried desperately to grab on to anything as the current swept her along. Finally, she managed to cling on to the walls of a well, and fell into it after the waves receded. She later climbed – miraculously – to safety, with the help of a fallen coconut tree.

"It’s a nightmare that I don’t want to go back to; I don’t even want to think about what happened. I have tried to erase the memory all these years," she says. Her greatest fear is having to experience that again.

But on the morning of Jun. 13, Maurasini’s heart skipped a beat as the tsunami warning alarm went off, triggered by fears of deadly waves caused by an undersea earthquake off Indonesia.

The large red tower crowned with loudhailers pointed in four directions, erected in the heart of Dutch Bar following the 2004 tragedy, wailed its incessant siren: the cue for villagers to evacuate immediately. Or else.

As the alarm sounded, Dutch Bar residents poured out from their homes – many still in their night clothes – to escape any possible killer waves. Amid the chaos, police jeeps from nearby stations roamed the deserted villages to protect the vacant houses from looters, and make sure no one remained on the beach.

"No one stayed, no one," says Ano Sujeetha, 45, a Dutch Bar villager who lost her mother and several relatives in the 2004 tsunami.

Dutch Bar was not the only place where an evacuation occurred. The scene was replicated in several other coastal villages that June morning, as thousands of Sri Lankans fled to safer areas to wait until the tsunami warning was lifted. The warnings were also issued in more remote locations like Panichchankerni some 30 km north of Dutch Bar, to make sure that people had ample time to get away.

Dominic Silva, a fisherman who lives in a hut on the beach in Panichchankerni, was awakened by the knock of police officers warning him to leave. "The last time a tsunami wave came, we only knew about it when 20-foot (6- metre) high waves had already started rolling in," Silva says. During the 2004 tsunami, he was walking out from church after mass, only to find fishermen and families running helter-skelter as waves smashed through the roofs of huts just 30 m away.

While the undersea earthquake off Indonesia, which triggered the alarm, did not result in a tsunami, experts say it is better to be safe than to sorry.

Local seismic expert C B Dissanayake observes that Sri Lanka is prone to occasional earthquakes, several of which have been reported inland since the 2004 tsunami. "More than 25 years ago, people hardly talked of earthquakes in Sri Lanka. Now, as everyone knows, earth tremors occur quite frequently in Sri Lanka and the trend is more marked than ever before," he wrote in a recent research article.

"Indeed many people would have laughed if some said, prior to 2004, that a tsunami would strike Sri Lanka and that thousands would perish," Dissanayake says. But he warns that seismic activity suggests the possibility of another tsunami striking Sri Lanka is very real.

Since 2004, Sri Lanka has worked to improve on its disaster response and early warning capabilities. A Disaster Management Centre to issue early warnings and communicate with public authorities and police has been set up. While the system is still in its infancy, citizens are grateful that they now receive at least some warning. Authorities have also installed signposts along the coast, indicating directions to safer, elevated areas.

"In 2004, we did not know what to do. Now at least we know that we have to get to higher ground," Sujeetha says.

Authorities also conducted a island-wide tsunami evacuation drill in 14 coastal villages this month.

The fear of the next big wave of terror is never far away from the eastern coast, which suffered the most deaths and damage six years ago. In Sainathimaruthu, a village 30 km south of Dutch Bar, over 3,000 people are believed to have died. The death toll here in Dutch Bar runs high into the hundreds. At least three tsunami memorials dot the narrow, residential stretch of its beaches.

As she sat near one such memorial, its lights creating a bright halo against the approaching night skies, Maurasini says she wishes she could go back to the pre-tsunami days. Back then, the sea was never a vicious monster hiding beneath the blue and white waves. "Now we know what it can do," she sighs. "At least next time, we will get a good headstart and run before it can catch us."

© Inter Press Service

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