Communication lessons learned from the Indian Ocean tsunami and other natural disasters

It has been ten years since the December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami.  Many “anniversary” articles today will look back at this event, so this post doesn’t cover the same ground.  Because my academic specialty is communication, I wanted to share two thoughts on communication and the horrific loss of life (well over 200,000 people) associated with that event.

First, beyond the natural disaster itself (earthquake followed by huge seismic waves), the Indian Ocean tsunami was at its heart a failure of communication.  The earthquake and subsequent waves occurred on a Sunday, when most government offices were closed.  No one knew who should serve as a designated “point person” who could transcend or supersede international boundaries to receive, coordinate, and communicate messages regarding the underwater geological activity and potential for widespread consequences.

The quake was registered in Japan, which quickly mobilized its emergency management system to determine whether that nation was in danger from a tsunami.  As soon as that risk was eliminated, the all-clear signal went out to Japanese media, and nothing further was done with the information that a significant quake had occurred and a resulting tsunami was possible.  And the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center had put out word that all nations in its “jurisdiction” were safe.  Although Japan and other Pacific Rim countries had an arrangement in place to exchange information and warn each other, no such relationship existed with countries along the Indian Ocean.  One tsunami researcher at Japan’s Meteorological Research Institute later told a reporter that not only did Japan lack technical means to monitor the Indian Ocean (UNESCO has since installed sensors in the Indian Ocean), but it also lacked personal contacts with people who had similar forecasting responsibilities in other countries.

Japanese researchers/forecasters were not alone in lacking adequate contact information for peers in other countries.  One official from Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency in Jakarta sent email messages to counterparts around the region and in Europe.  However, as he noted later, “we only sent emails to the addresses we have.  We did not call them.”  This official also notified Indonesia’s National Coordinating Board for disaster, but since it was Sunday, he wasn’t sure who might receive the information.  “Our duties are simply to monitor earthquakes, analyze the information and provide complete calculations of the impact of the earthquake,” he said.

So both in Japan and in Indonesia, people were doing their jobs.  But for bureaucratic infrastructure reasons, lifesaving information was not communicated beyond the limits of their personal spheres of responsibility.

There was also no diplomatic “protocol” in place.  Although Australia had determined that a tsunami was possible and its Foreign Ministry had communicated that information to several of its embassies, foreign governments were not warned for fear of overstepping.

The only success story of the day in terms of sounding the alarm, in my opinion, was commercial radio.  The Indonesian Meteorology and Geophysics Agency official mentioned above first learned of the earthquake when a reporter for Radio Elshinta called him at home with the news that people in Medan had felt tremors.  And when a weather forecast chief at Thailand’s Meteorological Department got news of the earthquake about an hour after it occurred (and shortly before the tsunami hit), he called a Bangkok traffic radio station, which broadcast the warning.  His office got more than 1,000 calls afterward, which he hoped meant that lives had been saved.

My second communication-related thought I wanted to share today is actually more about learning.  In some instances people who understood the terrifying significance of oddly receding ocean waters were able to warn others to flee to higher ground.  Japanese tourists, obviously, who would have absorbed a lifetime of collective, culturally transmitted tsunami knowledge.  And from the Wikipedia article on the tsunami, these instances:

One of the few coastal areas to evacuate ahead of the tsunami was on the Indonesian island of Simeulue, very close to the epicentre. Island folklore recounted an earthquake and tsunami in 1907, and the islanders fled to inland hills after the initial shaking and before the tsunami struck.[48] On Maikhao beach in northern Phuket, Thailand, a 10-year-old British tourist named Tilly Smith had studied tsunami in geography at school and recognised the warning signs of the receding ocean and frothing bubbles. She and her parents warned others on the beach, which was evacuated safely.[49]John Chroston, a biology teacher from Scotland, also recognised the signs at Kamala Bay north of Phuket, taking a busload of vacationers and locals to safety on higher ground.

Anthropologists had initially expected the aboriginal population of the Andaman Islands to be badly affected by the tsunami and even feared the already depopulated Onge tribe could have been wiped out.[50] Many of theaboriginal tribes evacuated and suffered fewer casualties.[51][52] Oral traditions developed from previous earthquakes helped the aboriginal tribes escape the tsunami. For example, the folklore of the Onges talks of “huge shaking of ground followed by high wall of water”. Almost all of the Onge people seemed to have survived the tsunami.[53]

So lives were saved by the culturally absorbed knowledge of the Japanese tourists and the oral traditions of the Andaman Islanders and the isolated academic knowledge of people like Tilly Smith and John Chroston.

One more “learning” related story is relevant to thinking about communication saving lives in a crisis.  In 1999 a tsunami struck Pentecost Island, a place in Vanuatu that had no running water or electricity and where the only television viewing happened once a week when a pickup truck with satellite reception, a television, and a VCR  made the rounds of the villages.

A few days after that 1999 Vanuatu tsunami struck, the International Tsunami Survey Team visited and discovered that only three out of 500 people in a village completely erased by the wave had died.  The villagers had watched a UNESCO video on tsunamis that had been made in response to a deadly tsunami in Papua New Guinea in 1998.  Because of that video, the villagers knew what to do when they felt the earthquake tremors: flee to higher ground.  Even without electricity and mass warnings via devices like radio or television or phones, and even though the Vanuatu quake and tsunami occurred at night, the Pentecost Islanders’ “disaster training” had given them the same critical advantage held by the Japanese tourists and others during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

One subdiscipline of my academic field is crisis communications.  Sadly, “crisis communication” has come to mean a C.Y.A. (“cover your ass”; sorry about the language) public relations strategy to help corporations deflect blame and culpability away from themselves when something goes wrong.  This is a rather manipulative use of language and gives “rhetoric” a bad name.  However, technical communicators are far more concerned with clarity and functionality.  Crisis communications in this context refers to systems that enable clear communication during a crisis in order to avert even greater disaster and to integrate all parties working to recover from the initial event. (UPDATE as of May 12, 2021, when I noticed this post was getting lots of views and thought I’d visit it again myself: The term currently used for the concept I described in this post is “disaster communication.”)

This post is really long, so let me just mention three examples of excellent crisis communications

  1. Salt Lake City tornado 1999 – The Mormons have a culture of preparedness, and thirty minutes after this tornado ripped through downtown Salt Lake City, people were directing traffic, cutting up fallen trees with chainsaws, checking on neighbors, etc., with incredible efficiency and no governmental direction.  Within just a few days the city was largely cleared of debris and back to business as normal.  (For more information, see this AP article.)
  2. Wal-Mart’s response to Hurricane Katrina – The corporation mobilized its already stellar efficiencies to quickly deliver key supplies like food, water, fuel, and toilet paper to New Orleans at a time when the U.S. government seemed incompetent to recognize that disaster had actually struck, much less respond effectively.  (For more information, see this Washington Post article.)
  3. FEMA’s Waffle House index – Craig Fugate, head of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, coined the term for this brilliant tool in 2011, following the tornado that wiped out much of Joplin, Missouri.  According to Fugate, here is the way to deduce how badly a city has been hit by a disaster: “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed?  That’s really bad.  That’s where you go to work.”  Because the (mostly Southern U.S.) Waffle House chain is known for rarely closing due to bad weather, it is possible to quickly gauge the hardest hit areas by checking with Waffle House headquarters to see which restaurants are either closed or serving a limited menu due to power outages.  The Waffle House index was used during Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy in 2012 to move supplies and aid efforts to the areas most urgently needing attention.  (For more info, see the Wikipedia entry on the Waffle House Index.  You can also just Google the term and recent disasters like Sandy and the Moore/Oklahoma City tornado in 2013.)

Sources for information referred to in this post regarding the Indian Ocean tsunami are below:

The Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2004, Lucy Manoppo – “Why Quake Warnings Failed” (different editions have slightly different titles):

The Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2004, Costas Synolakis – “Why There Was No Warning”:

The Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2004, Kate Linebaugh, et al – “Asia’s Deadly Wave”:


About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in History, Learning, Life, Nature, News, Science, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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