This reality check was a welcome one in many ways. The two earthquakes that struck off Sumatra spread panic but caused no real damage across a large swathe from Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Malaysia to India, Sri Lanka, Reunion and Kenya. With a magnitude of 8.6, the first was the 10th strongest recorded in a century — and all the others produced deadly tsunamis. It revived memories of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that left at least 240,000 people dead. But this time round, warning systems introduced since then proved efficacious. Five deaths caused by heart attacks were reported, but overall, better popular awareness of what to expect, information flow based on more advanced technologies, and proactive steps initiated quickly by authorities, suggests disaster preparedness of a higher order. The fact that the use of smart phones and social media has risen since 2004, helped spread the word and keep anxiety at bay. The Internet played a significant role in disseminating information. Although the quakes did not ultimately cause a tsunami, the alert proved a test of the Indian Ocean tsunami warning system, an ambitious network of tidal gauges, deep ocean buoys and seismic monitors put in place post-2004. In the tense hours that a tsunami watch remained in effect, meteorologists monitored offshore buoys that measured the waves, confidently predicting that the likelihood of a large tsunami was minimal. They knew which parts of the coast to watch, as buoys sent signals to monitoring stations. The bottomline: the region was better prepared.
India issued a tsunami warning for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the eastern coast eight minutes after the first quake. In some areas, the alert did expose problems of traffic management and the inability of mobile phone networks to cope in an emergency. Clearly, there is no room for complacency given that natural and man-made disasters of any kind could strike unexpectedly at any point. The founding of the National Disaster Management Authority and State Disaster Management Authorities, and the launching of the National Disaster Response Force during the last decade marked the realisation in India of the need for the management of emergency situations. In order to make the cut, systems need to be in peak form, and equipped right. Personnel should have the means to mobilise quickly and at short notice. This will call for continuous investments in training to improve response time, going beyond periodic ritualistic exercises. Complex tasks of human resource development, capacity building, training, research, documentation and policy formation are involved here. India can rest easy only when it realises the importance of being in a state of readiness.