When You Know that You will Face a Tsunami, it’s Better to Be Prepared

Losavati Dugutara’s story from Papua New Guinea

Losavati Dugutara is a grade seven student in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Kim Allen/UNDP

Out of breath and exhausted after running uphill for 300 meters from her school, Losavati Dugutara, a grade seven student, is confident that she now knows what to do when an earthquake triggers a tsunami in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

“I have been waiting and preparing for the drill since I heard that my school was going to be part of a tsunami awareness project,” Losavati said, beaming with pride.

East Cape Primary School is built on the sand, about five meters from the ocean. Photo: Kim Allen/UNDP

Losavati is one of 600 students in East New Britain and Milne Bay Province who participated in the tsunami drill. Her school, East Cape Primary School, is located at the southernmost tip of PNG. Surrounded by lowland savanna, it sits right on the sandy beach, about five meters from the shoreline.

Losavati knew that her school was located in an area vulnerable to coastal erosion. But it was only during the drill when she learnt that her school and her home are located in a high tsunami-risk area. This means that there is a very high likelihood of a major tsunami occurring in the next 50 years, during her lifetime.

“The drill was an eye-opening exercise because our school is about five meters from the shoreline,” Losavati said.

Located in the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, a hotspot for seismic activity, PNG suffers from several earthquakes every year.

Already two earthquakes in 2018 have been exceptionally severe — in February, an earthquake of 7.5 magnitude killed 145 people and left 270,000 people in need of emergency aid. A month later, another 6.9 magnitude quake rocked the island and prompted a tsunami warning.

Although, East Cape was not damaged by these earthquakes, for Losavati, her friends and community, everyday life means continuous coping with natural hazards and disasters.

As smart phones are rare and internet connection close to non-existent, people in PNG have to rely on their knowledge and ability to recognize warning signs to protect their lives in times of disasters. Therefore, hazard awareness and emergency evacuation drills in schools are vital to prepare the young generation for a life with natural hazards

One school can prepare an entire community for natural disasters. Photo: Kim Allen/UNDP
“I had only read about tsunamis in the classroom but now I have experienced the evacuation drill and know what to do if a tsunami happens,” Losavati expressed her gratitude.

The last deadly tsunami ravaged PNG in 1998. Losavati was born 10 years after the tragedy but it is likely that her generation will have a similar experience.

Due to its remote location which makes it difficult to access, schools like East Cape Primary School often miss out on disaster trainings. Thanks to a regional “Strengthening School Preparedness for Tsunamis” project, facilitated by the United Nations Development Programme and funded by the Government of Japan, East Cape Primary is one of three schools in PNG to benefit from these awareness trainings.

Drop, cover, hold! Photo: Kim Allen/UNDP

The three schools were selected by the National Disaster Centre in PNG in conjunction with the Education Department, Department of Mineral Policy and Geo-hazards Management and respective Provincial Disaster Offices.

In addition to conducting drills, the partnership helps schools to assess their tsunami risk, develop emergency plans, and map the safe zones and evacuation routes.

“We will use the preparedness method in these pilot schools to improve earthquake and tsunami preparedness in other schools,” said Philomena Emilio, UNDP’s Focal Point for the Tsunami Project in PNG.

It is envisaged that the lessons learnt from this project will spur tsunami safe school guidelines in PNG and good practices that can be shared with other tsunami-prone countries around the world.

Tsunami drills are piloted in three schools across Papua New Guinea. Photo: UNDP Pacific and PNG