Focus now on tsunami warning

January 27, 2005, vol. 32, no. 2
By Marianne Meadahl

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Aid for tsunami victims and the prospects of rebuilding regions of South Asia have the world's attention.

SFU communication professor Peter Anderson's focus remains fixed on the early stages of the Dec. 26 disaster, and how to better alert people about imminent danger.

The disaster communication expert is in Sri Lanka working with the Vanguard foundation and the Sri Lanka institute of development administration on a paper that will set out a framework for a new national warning system for that region. He will also participate in other regional warning system activities in Thailand.

Anderson's visit is on the heels of the release of a study he and former PhD student Gordon Gow recently completed on the effectiveness of B.C.'s tsunami warning system. The researchers found that while the system is adequate in terms of getting word to the provincial emergency program, there is a need to improve communication capabilities to and within communities, especially in more remote areas.

The study has resulted in a new government-funded program to help coastal communities set up training, telecommunications and tsunami warning capabilities.

Anderson undertook the provincial tsunami study after lending his expertise to officials coordinating the 2003 B.C. interior forest fire operations. That disaster prompted him to consider how the province would fare in the wake of other possible disasters.

Others from SFU could have roles in the tsunami disaster. Chris Dagg of SFU international is involved in discussions with Canadian government officials in Jakarta and with Indonesian agencies and NGOs on a possible SFU role in recovery efforts in Aceh, the earthquake's ground zero, which was devastated by both the quake and the ensuing tsunami.

Geography associate professor Jennifer Hyndman is also heading for the region. Her plans to return to Sri Lanka Feb. 3 to follow up on a research project she began there six years ago may quickly change once she arrives. Instead of undertaking an analysis of issues facing people displaced by war, she expects to find that displacement has taken on a whole new meaning since the deadly tsunami struck. She says her research efforts may take a back seat, while she prepares to put on a different hat, that of relief worker, if necessary.

“The well-being and welfare of the people come first,” says Hyndman, who has spent time as a relief worker in Somalia and Kenya and can share her expertise in conducting needs assessments or becoming involved in community consultations on reconstruction.

“This is not a heroic effort on my part. There is already an abundance of volunteers helping out,” Hyndman notes. “But if I find there is a need then that's where I will focus my attention.” She has already had one call from UNICEF.

Hyndman became interested in studying issues around displacement and conflict after becoming involved with other researchers through an international network of women working in conflict zones during the 90s, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

She began the Oxfam-funded project with a Sri Lankan anthropologist in 1999 with the goal of returning this year to follow up with members of local non-government organizations, to assess such issues as security. “Despite a ceasefire in the region, we want to consult these groups and see how things have evolved over the past five years,” says Hyndman. “However, the issues they now face are enormous, given the loss of lives, livelihoods and homes to the tsunami.”

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