Editorial: New warning systems vital for disaster preparedness

By Annemarie Quill

Being a news junkie has its downsides. Sometimes you come across a story that crawls into your soul and haunts you for the rest of your life.

Like the story of Perth mother Jillian Searle. In December 2004, while holidaying in Phuket with sons Lachie, then 5, and Blake, then 2, the tsunami hit.

With water surging Searle realised she couldn't hold on to both. She had to make an awful decision to let the older one go, deciding this was better than all three drowning.

She later told news organisations she prised his fingers off her while he begged her to not let go of him. He couldn't swim.

She thought it was the last time she would see her older son. The story has a joyful ending - she asked another woman to grab Lachie. Both boys, and Jillian, survived.

Her story propelled me into action. After that Boxing Day tsunami, like many people, I made a disaster plan.

We know where we will go. I've talked to the kids about how to hold on to things, tie yourself to things and stay afloat. I have made my partner promise that if he is ever faced with a Searle's dilemma, he must hold on to them all, but he can let me drown (only if essential.)

Over-cautious? Perhaps. But as Natalie Dixon reported this week, lessons from Japan's tsunami in 2011 showed that there was more chance of survival having a plan than just relying on sirens.

People in Japan had "relied heavily" on the sirens rather than their natural instinct to find a safe place when they felt an earthquake.

The findings of the Review of Tsunami Hazard in New Zealand (2013 update) mean more emphasis must be placed on people understanding a local tsunami can arrive before any official warning is issued.

They need to know if they feel a large earthquake at the coast to get to high ground, or go inland. The report warns that to some extent the installation of tsunami warning sirens is contributing to the problem of people not responding immediately to a strong coastal earthquake (in that they are expecting a tsunami warning).

This week, Tauranga City Council used this to shape its own response, placing its controversial tsunami siren project on the backburner and instead focus on evacuation routes and push the "have a plan" message.

This makes good sense while we await new national disaster standards, which will be released mid-2014.

It is also convenient for the new council to have a valid reason to put the siren saga into the "pending" pile.

This does not mean that sirens are off the agenda. Councils are responsible for warning communities as well as developing local plans.

It will be interesting to see what is eventually recommended by the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, which is investigating a range of alert systems, including smartphone applications, in-home systems and cellphone broadcasting.

Council will also have to find the funds for these systems. While it is the right decision not to spend further on them currently, they still form an integral part of tsunami preparedness. "Having a plan", evacuation signs and knowing where higher ground is, may help you survive.

But if you don't have any warning a tsunami is coming, you can hold on to your plan as tight as your children, but you still might not live.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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