Lessons for New Zealand from the Indian Ocean tsunami

Noel Evans
Project Manager
Opus International Consultants Ltd
Napier, New Zealand

In late January 2005 the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering sent a reconnaissance team to inspect the effects of the Indian Ocean tsunami on the southern coast of Thailand. The aim of this tour was to learn possible lessons for New Zealand that is just as susceptible to a tsunami, even if it has experienced few destructive events in the last 160 years of recorded history.

The lasting impressions left are of the misery of the fatalities, the huge disruption to the lives of many who survived, and the horrendous damage to buildings, infrastructure and a vibrant economy.

  Khao Lak, road lost in drawdown

One major lesson is that the December 26 tsunami was not a single breaking wave but a series of waves with the characteristics of a wall of raging chocolate-coloured, sand-filled water. The tsunami that moves at extremely high speeds through deep oceans slows up as it reaches shallow coastal zones, and rears up to form a torrent that charges over the low-lying coastal land.

What was not fully appreciated until we saw the evidence was how long the inundation lasted and the energy contained in the torrent behind the leading front. We saw tide marks up to two to three stories that we were told had lasted for up to 10 minutes. The torrents contained so much energy that they developed standing waves and whirlpools. They bodily moved light-frame buildings that they did not destroy, and blasted through nonreinforced masonry infill walls of the robust buildings that did remain standing.

At the time, the media gave us many pictures of cars and boats and all manner of debris being swept along by the water that just kept coming and coming, making survival for anyone caught in it a matter of very good fortune. Sand and debris were deposited up to three kilometres inland in some low-lying areas.

  Fishing industry in ruins

An unanticipated lesson was the severe damage caused by the water retreating back to the sea. As it drained, it created rivers that scoured out channels, and undermined and displaced buildings, seawalls, took out sections of road, and further disrupted utility services.

Most of the affected areas that were inspected along the western (seaward) coast of Phuket Island, and at Khao Lak, about 100 km farther north, were thriving international coastal resorts. These resorts are generally serviced by branch lines off the main utility networks running parallel to the coast but farther inland. Thus the main networks were minimally affected and were quickly restored.

We were informed that damage to the essential roads, bridges and electrical supplies in the resort areas was progressively restored from about one week after the tsunami.

The response to the disaster was the responsibility of the governments of the five affected provinces that agreed to give responsibility for overall coordination to the governor of the most affected state, Phuket. A number of major businesses and national ministries drew on resources from the rest of Thailand to assist in response and recovery. The Thai military and the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation provided earth-moving machinery to clear the demolished buildings and areas of debris, and emergency housing was provided for homeless in a series of well-appointed camps along the coast.

Khao Lak, impact and drawdown damage to buildings, services and road

By the time of our visit one month after the tsunami, the affected areas were obvious by the hectares of cleared sand with few remaining trees, almost no single-story buildings, and some severely damaged multi-story buildings.

Clearing and restoration had just commenced on Phi Phi Island, a resort in Krabi Province lying to the east of Phuket, where the debris was stacked metres high and almost all services had been completely devastated. The very few essential activities required were operating on standby electricity generators and an interim water supply.

While the impacts observed in Thailand were only locally approaching the scale of damage in Aceh Province, Indonesia, they provide key messages for New Zealand which has many communities located in low-lying coastal zones.

The key aim in preparedness for a tsunami must be to minimise the potential loss of life. This can be achieved by a combination of greater knowledge on the sources and potential for tsunami, detection and alert systems especially for local events, public knowledge, warning systems, response planning for evacuation or refuge, land-use planning that includes essential services, and retaining natural wave barriers such as dunes and mangroves for their protection.

A consistent national approach to the above is needed and the knowledge acquired should be institutionalised so that communities can manage the tsunami risk over time and avert the need to relearn the same lessons at such cost.

Noel Evans can be reached at

Rising from the rubble

Australian engineers join in the relief work following the tsunami disaster

Dietrich Georg
Managing Editor, Engineers Australia magazine
Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia

Note: RedR Australia, which stands for Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief Australia, is a Technical Society of Engineers Australia magazine. It has professional engineers and other skilled relief workers on its register and responds to requests for engineering help from world aid organisations. Funding for the deployments comes from the federal government's Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). The following article, originally published in the January 2005 issue of Engineers Australia and reprinted with permission, summarizes RedR Australia's rapid response to the tsunami disaster by Australian engineers.

Six logisticians dispatched by RedR Australia were on the ground in Indonesia within the first week of January following the tsunami disaster which struck coastal areas all around the Indian Ocean on 26 December. They have been working with the World Food Program (WFP) and the UN Joint Logistics Centre (JLC) in Banda Aceh, Medan and Jakarta.

RedR also released its training manager Thanh Le to work with the International Federation of Red Cross as water/sanitation coordinator. Three more members have been deployed to support the work of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

One of the first RedR helpers to arrive in the area was Mal Ralston. He is the UN JLC liaison officer for Banda Aceh.

"Our job is to ensure the supply 'pipeline' to the beneficiaries of the national and international aid is as open as possible," he told Engineers Australia. He has been surveying the Aceh west coast and other local routes assessing roads and bridges, as well as port facilities for their capability to handle the distribution of incoming supplies.

"Despite the damaged roads and port, the difficult communications and the small size of the airports in the devastated areas of Aceh, the flow of relief supplies is progressing reasonably well," Ralston said.

He sees his job done in about a month, when the relief effort shifts from the immediate supply of drinking water, food and temporary shelter to the next phase of more permanent reconstruction. Other specialists will then be required to carry out more detailed assessments of the work that needs to be done to rebuild the damaged infrastructure.

Ralston said following the horrific devastation locals have been working hard to get back to some kind of normality. The other RedR personnel at present on the ground are:

  • Terry Graham, who is moving between Medan and Banda Aceh as WFP logistics coordinator receiving and distributing goods forwarded by air and sea from the WFP regional hub in Kuala Lumpur.
  • Daryll Ainsworth, who is based in Banda Aceh overseeing the warehousing and distribution of WFP food and non-food items.
  • Peggy Wheller, who is in Banda Aceh providing logistics support for WFP and managing the tent camp which provides accommodation for UN staff; with regular aftershocks reaching 6.5, it is not safe for staff to sleep in any of the remaining buildings.
  • Steve Pantling, who is in Medan to assist with air operations.
  • Colleen Ruru, who is undertaking similar work in Jakarta with UN JLC.
  • Regan Potangaroa, who is in Banda Aceh as technical coordinator for shelter with UNHCR.
  • Doug Foster-Lynam, who has joined the UNHCR team in Jakarta as senior telecommunications officer to provide the vital UNHCR communications network into Aceh.
  • John Weir, who has joined the Caritas Australia assessment team in Aceh as the shelter adviser.

UNHCR has requested 12 more RedR personnel to join the team in the next few days. The team will include engineers to cover shelter, water and sanitation, and four logisticians. One of the first tasks will be the provision of office and sleeping accommodation for around 40 UNHCR staff who will undertake a program that will provide materials for 35,000 homes to be rebuilt.

Requests have also been received from WFP for telecommunication officers, electricians and senior radio operators/trainers to be based in Aceh and Sri Lanka.

More than 40 RedR members are on standby to respond to additional requests from nongovernment organisations (NGOs) and UN agencies. These include water, sanitation, road and shelter engineers, site planners, logisticians, public health workers and humanitarian managers.

Two RedR psychosocial counsellors are also on standby to work with UNICEF in its program to assist traumatised children.

RedR Australia chairman Professor Mike Dureau, who is also the chairman of RedR International, the federation of national RedR organisations based in Geneva, has invited engineers interested in participating in the massive ongoing aid program to register their skills and availability with RedR for now and the longer term. Applications can be made at the organisation's website, Dureau said AusAID has pledged an extra $1.25 million especially for the tsunami relief effort.

As RedR Australia is not operating in disaster areas in its own right it does not accept direct donations for the tsunami response. However, Dureau said members can give financial support for the enabling and training work of RedR, which ensures that engineers and other disaster relief workers are ready to be deployed at short notice.

Dureau also invited engineering companies to get behind RedR by becoming corporate partners. One company that has already responded following the tsunami disaster is Resmed with a pledge of $25,000. Last week, Engineers Australia made a donation to RedR Australia of $100,000.

Engineers Australia's national president Professor Andrew Downing, in an e-mailed letter sent to Engineers Australia members on 4 January, expressed his "sincere condolence to those who have suffered such terrible loss of life and family, friends and loved ones."

Downing said Engineers Australia has contacted Emergency Management Australia and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade offering the expertise of Australian engineers "to provide assistance in any way they can."

Engineers Australia has also offered assistance to Geoscience Australia for the development of an early warning system for tsunamis in the Indian Ocean similar to the one covering the Pacific. In addition, it has contacted:

  • AusAID and other organisations coordinating the relief and recovery work.
  • The presidents of the engineering organisations in all of the affected countries in Asia to offer training and technical assistance.
  • Key industry leaders to develop a national engineering plan for future aid activity.

"We are also advancing numerous proposals put forward by members to improve, and better safeguard, the public infrastructure and housing replacing that destroyed in the disaster," Downing said.

Members can contribute any suggestions about other ways that Engineers Australia might be able to help via email at

This article was originally published in Engineers Australia magazine, January 2005. Their permission to reproduce the article is greatly acknowledged.

Cultural Proverbs

"All roads do not lead to Rome." - Slovenian Proverb

"Call on God, but row away from the rocks." - Indian Proverb

"The church is near, but the way is icy; the tavern is far, but I will walk carefully." - Ukranian Proverb

"Every path has its puddle." - English Proverb

"Go often to the house of a friend; for weeds soon choke up the unused path." - Scandanavian Proverb

"He who sows peas on the highway does not get all the pods into his barn." - Danish Proverb

"To know the road ahead, ask those coming back." - Chinese Proverb