The Waves Were Enormous, We Were Afraid of a Tsunami Attack

Rodney Gimis’ Story from Papua New Guinea

Tsunami drill in the Sohano Island’s Primary School. Sohano is one of the most tsunami-prone areas in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Hudon Tabara and Kim Allen/UNDP

Without a question that was a night to remember. “I was among other kids watching a movie out in the field when the Police Officer rushed to us and instructed to run to the hill top because of a tsunami warning. I remember that children and women started to cry and men looked confused because they didn’t know what to do,” 57-year-old Rodney Gimis recounts an event that happened 47 years ago, in 1971, in Sohano island, Papua New Guinea.

Rodney Gimis ( left) and Gwen Gimis are the Ward Members for Sohano Ward under Buka Urban District, AROB. . Photo: Kim Allen / UNDP

“Later, I found out that some patients in the hospital were left behind when people ran for higher grounds after the tsunami warning was issued.” After so many years, Gimis is still disturbed.

For four following days, the community stayed on alert, running uphill every time they saw unusually high waves rushing towards the island.

The waves were king tides, a natural phenomenon, that can happen every year. But, king tides can crow from 1.5 to 11 meters and look like a tsunami.

“The waves were enormous, carrying ashore fish and other marine life that die on the beach. We were afraid,” recalls Gimis, who now works as the Ward Member for Sohano Ward under Buka Urban District, AROB.

Evacuating community members to higher grounds during the tsunami drills. Photo: Hudson Tabara / UNDP

Unfortunately for Sohano like for many other disaster-prone coastlines of Papua New Guinea (PNG), more tsunamis and king tides are expected to hit the island.

A recent multi hazard risk assessment in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville identified Sohano Island as the most vulnerable area to tsunamis in PNG.

Ward Member Gimis is concerned as Sohano is home to a lot of families. He also knows that people need to be prepared for such a disaster.

A tsunami drill, carried out by the Bougainville Regional Disaster Office, was conducted to help islanders to develop their emergency management plans and check out safe evacuation routes.

Tsunami drills in six schools in PNG with 2,238 participants. Photo: UNDP PNG

“As a boy and going through such terrifying experience, I see why the tsunami drills are important for our children, women, youth, people living with disabilities and men. Everybody needs to be alert and know how to evacuate during a tsunami or any other disaster,” Gimis said.

With the landmass of approximately less than seven km long and five km wide, Sohano Island is located on the eastern Buka passage of ARoB, few minutes boat ride from Buka town. Its coastline is divided by breathtaking white sandy beaches. The north and southern part of the island are covered by cliff coastline separating the sea from the lowland hills, enabling an escape to higher ground for the people to take refugee during tsunamis and king tides.

With a population of over 1500 people, the tsunami drill is an eye-opening exercise for the youth, women and children of Sohano.

Hearing of Rodney’s experience, the youth of Sohano took on the task of setting up the tsunami evacuation and safe zones signages. Three tsunami safe zones were identified.

Although the community knows the hills, evacuation routes and are well aware of the signs of tsunami, there is a need to shorten the time of evacuation. This can only be done by conducting drills to practice safe and effective.

The drill in Sohano was the first evacuation exercise for Stanis Boku. Photo: Kim Allen / UNDP

“Our parents have told us about the past disasters, but we were unsure what we needed to do when we heard a tsunami warning,” said a youth participant Stanis Boku.

“ Participating in the drills, like the one in Sohano, gave us the confidence to act when tsunamis happen,” he added.

More than 1500 people participated in the drills including 451 students and 13 teaches from the Sohano Primary School as part of a regional “Strengthening School Preparedness for Tsunamis” project, supported by the Government of Japan, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the National Disaster Centre, Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System, Mineral Policy and Geohazard Management and Department of Education.

In total, six schools in tsunami-prone coastal areas in East New Britain, Milne Bayhave and Sohano have participated in the project activities and have conducted drills and tsunami awareness education for 2,238 participants -students, teachers and community members.

While more still needs to be done to be prepared, Rodney is now a little less worried because the residents of Sohano know what to do when another warning is issued.

Watch video about the drills in PNG.

Read more: Strengthening School Preparedness for Tsunamis in the Asia-Pacific region.

Copyright: UNDP Bangkok Regional Office