Editorial comment – Tsunami preparedness

Tsunami waves break the banks of a residential area in Tonga. Picture: TWITTER

On January 5, 2017 we spoke about tsunami warnings and the impact on our nation.

It was one of those rainy days in the Capital City the previous day that year, which was a Wednesday.

There was a slight reprieve in the early half of the day, with rain easing off to a drizzle at times.

The skies did open up though before it eased off again towards the afternoon.

We remember it wasn’t until a little after 11am that things took a sudden turn, and the streets of Suva were packed to the brim as the masses finally got wind of a tsunami alert through various mediums.

In the face of some concern that day, then Ministry of Lands and Mineral Resources permanent secretary Malakai Finau was quoted saying the release of the official warning following the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that happened south of Fiji took a while as his office needed some time to conduct analysis and verification before it could issue an official alert.

We reported Mr Finau saying people needed to understand that the earthquake was a local event and the arrival of the first wave activity could take between five and 10 minutes, faster than the issuance of warnings.

Communication channels for official warnings, he said, also got delayed because of the jam in communication networks.

However, as in 2017, we note that such events will continue to raise a number of important issues.

We should be asking whether we are prepared for the big one?

In the chain of events that year, there was a magnitude 5.0 earthquake at 6.28am, and this was followed at 11.08am by the monster 7.2 magnitude quake.

However, it wasn’t until 11.30am that a tsunami warning was issued which was later cancelled at 12.21pm.

We accept that we are a country prone to cyclones, flooding and we have had a few scares when tsunami alerts were sounded, even though the only thing that eventuated was scared people rushing for the nearest high ground as some Fijians dashed down to the seafront to “wait for the big wave”.

We are reminded about the tsunami in 1953 which left fish high and dry on Albert Park and eight people were reported to have died.

It followed an earthquake that shook and damaged buildings in Suva.

Now we have to consider what a similar tsunami could do now.

It will definitely have the potential to cause more damage given that the Capital City has grown both in terms of buildings and the number of people who work and travel through Suva daily for starters.

So are we prepared for a tsunami?

We are raising this now following the tidal waves that swept through parts of Tonga and some parts of Fiji in the wake of the eruption of the volcano in Tonga on Saturday, and the delay in tsunami warnings.

There will be questions on our preparedness for an operational environment, taking into account various possible scenarios and the scale of emergency.

Is there a plan to test this?

There will be questions about decision-making under such an emergency and communication processes.

How does this operate at the national level?

A major tsunami will inch out a massive response and recovery effort.

The reality is that a tsunami threat can never be ruled out in Fiji.

When the events of 2017 took place, in many other parts of the city, life continued as normal, with many people unaware of a tsunami threat.

There can be no room for confusion or second-guessing.

Perhaps it is time for us to review processes.

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