13 Years Later: Is Thailand Better Prepared for Tsunamis?

By: Aticha Chaivichian, Tsunami Preparedness Project Coordinator at UNDP Thailand

Phang Nga Province in Thailand, known for its exquisite beaches and islands, was completely destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami. Photo: UNDP Thailand

It was my first time to visit Phang Nga in southern Thailand, a province known for its exquisite islands and beautiful beaches near the popular tourist destination of Phuket. It was hard to imagine that this very same place was submerged with flood water and debris when a tsunami struck the Andaman Sea coast in 2004.

Aticha Chaivichian (left) awarding the drills’ participants with a certificate of completion. Photo: UNDP Thailand

With up to 5,395 people dead, including tourists, the 2004 tsunami was the deadliest natural hazard in Thailand’s history.

It has been 13 years since the tragedy. Although family tales of loss and suffering are still told, people’s awareness of a tsunami threat is starting to fade.

Schools that were destroyed by the tsunami have stopped conducting evacuation drills. They do not have emergency procedures and evacuation plans to respond to a tsunami warning. Teachers are unprepared to take care of students during natural hazards. Students do not recognize warning signs and lack the skills to protect their lives during weather related disasters.

The United Nations Development Programme is implementing a regional project on strengthening school tsunami preparedness in 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, with funding from the Government of Japan. Phang Nga was the worst affected province in the 2004 tsunami, and recognizing the inadequate preparedness of schools, it was agreed that the project in Thailand would focus on five tsunami prone schools in the province.

Before the drill, the excitement and fear were almost palpable in the air. To calm the students down, the teachers organized a 10-minutes meditation. Photo: Goragod Chamgamon/UNDP

We had to start from the beginning. Since most schools did not have preparedness plans or safe evacuation routes, we first needed to work with the school authorities and the teachers. We worked closely with the Department of Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation (DDPM) the Thai Red Cross Society, and Phang Nga Primary Education Area Office, Ministry of Education, to analyze the hazard risks for each school so that we could tailor preparedness plans and safe evacuation in the event of a tsunami.

Teachers supporting younger students during the drill. Photo: Goragod Chamgamon/UNDP

The importance of teachers’ training was the first lessons-learnt for us. I realized that it was absolutely critical to educate the teachers on disaster preparedness so that they can assist and train students to be aware and prepared.

The second thing we learnt was that students with physical disabilities need special care in evacuation. Each school had a few students with physical disabilities. Following the principle of Leave No-One Behind, we invited disability expert to train us on disability inclusive disaster risk reduction (DiDRR) and share practical ways on how to involve students with disabilities in the planning process and evacuation drill.

Our training brought teachers, community representatives and government officials to work together to improve tsunami preparedness in these five highly vulnerable schools. We also cooperated with the Phang Nga Naval Base and local authorities to prepare evacuation routes and early tsunami warning systems.

Emergency evacuation plans ensured that all they address the needs of every single student, including physically disabled students. Photo: UNDP Thaiand

It was delightful to see them developing safety plans for physically disabled and very young students who need support during an evacuation.

Conducting the drills, a month after the teachers’ trainings and preparations, we conducted our first drill to test our preparations.

The day started at 8.00 a.m. with the national anthem. I could sense the palpable excitement among the students who would test their knowledge on tsunami warning signs, safe areas and danger zones around the school and demonstrate their first aid skills.

No one participating in the drill knew when it would start. Shortly after lunch, the warning alarm went off indicating the start of the drill. After that everything moved so fast and I was amazed to see how smoothly it went — like a movie filmed in one shot!

Students learnt about tsunami threat by watching cartoons and participating in group discussions. First aid skills, gained during the training, will help these students in any kind of emergencies. Photo: Goragod Chamgamon/UNDP

Of course there was some panic too, but mostly a lot of excitement. I could see teachers trying to check their students off a list so that all their students would be evacuated safely.

To avoid injuries and chaos during the drill, we had asked that the students walk in one line, touching the shoulder of the student ahead of them. This innovative method ensured an organised and calm evacuation. Also, we had given the student committee the responsibility of carrying kindergarten students to the safe zone.

We also injected some scenarios to test how the teachers and school authorities would react to unforeseen situations. For instance, we “stole” some students to make sure that the teachers did the headcount, reporting any missing students and sent authorities to find and bring them to the safe area. It was the very first time when the school management and teachers had worked together with students, like one team.

Many students took their shoes off, as Thailand’s customs require, and entered the safe area in their socks to the safe area. Photo: UNDP Thailand

I noticed a humorous moment when almost all students took off their shoes before entering the assigned safe room, as the Thai etiquette requires. It happened although everybody was instructed not to do this when tsunami is approaching.

When the school director signaled the end of the evacuation drill, everyone, including observing parents, were impressed and satisfied with the training. The teachers from Baan Nam Kem, one of the five schools, said that it was their first experience to develop an evacuation plan and conduct a drill, and that they felt ready to work with their community to prepare students and their families for disasters.

The time I spent in Phang Nga was precious. It taught me that the process of tsunami preparedness is vital as tsunamis can happen anytime and anywhere.

After 13 years, is Thailand more prepared for tsunamis? In these schools and communities where emergency plans are updated and safety drills conducted, they are now, for sure.

Watch a movie about the tsunami drill in Thailand here.

Read more about the project here.

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Participants, parents, partners and organizers were were impressed and satisfied with the training. Photo: UNDP Thailand

Copyright: UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub

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