Seychelles avoided tsunami disaster


afrol News, 3 January Unlike Somalia and southern Asia, Kenya and Seychelles avoided large numbers of casualties due to the tsunami that hit the two coastal nations with a devastating power on 26 December. Tourists and nationals were warned in advance despite the lack of an early warning system. One dead fisherman is mourned in each country.

A wall of water as high a four metres hit the Seychelles archipelago as a result of the earthquake close to Indonesia, some 5000 kilometres away. The devastations on the island of Mahé, the most populated in Seychelles, are enormous. Victoria, the capital, was flooded, residential areas were put to ruins, roads collapsed and hotels were badly damaged on all the islands. Images resemble those of Sri Lanka and Thailand, although in a lesser scale.

Yet, Seychelles only mourns the life of one fisherman. Already this weekend, Seychellois Vice-President Joseph Belmont issued a statement, reassuring European tour operators that Seychelles is “safe and sound” for tourists. “All hotels except for the three on Praslin are fully operational; all inter-island and international flights are running on schedule, and tourists are going about their holiday in a very normal way.” Vice-President Belmont emphasised.

The Kenya Tourist Board was even faster in reassuring foreign tourists of the safety of the Kenyan coast. Already on 28 December, Kenyan authorities had been in contact with hoteliers and tour operators all along the coast. They “all confirm that everything is back to normal with no damage to the resorts. No resorts have been adversely affected in any way from this incident. Hotel guests are swimming and snorkelling and fishing boats are operating as usual,” a statement said.

Kenya’s main coastal city, Mombasa, was indeed ravaged by the tsunami. Also the coastal resorts north and south of the metropolis, such as Malindi, were badly hurt by the large wave. In neighbouring Somalia, the tsunami hit just slightly stronger, killing at least 200 persons and destructing the homes of an estimated 50,000. Only one Kenyan lost his life to the wave.

The Indian Ocean, as contrasted to the Pacific, does not have a tsunami early warning system. The loss of an estimated 135,000 lives, mostly in south-eastern Asia, is mostly blamed on this lack of a warning system. Expect for Somalia, however, most of Africa’s Indian Ocean coast escaped disaster by an improvised emergency warning.

The Indonesian earthquake had been registered by seismologists all around the world, even causing the US tsunami warning centre in Hawaii – coordinating Pacific alerts – to prepare for a killer wave on the British Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, where a US naval base resides. Other warnings, to authorities in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand, went out too late or were not taken seriously by national authorities.

As the fist signs of disaster in Asia were becoming clear, the US seismologists rapidly understood that the tsunami was heading towards the African coast. The American embassies in Mauritius and Madagascar were warned, which again passed the alert to national authorities around the region. Seychelles took an early lead, also confirming to Kenyan authorities that they indeed could expect a devastating wave.

No emergency plans however exist in these countries on how to handle a tsunami – the region almost never experiences such natural disasters. In Seychelles, the National Disaster Committee immediately set up a base at the Police Command Centre in Victoria to monitor what was happening. It instructed the Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation to send out alerts to warn members of the public.

According to Seychellois President James Michel, these broadcasted alerts and evacuation massages to hotels, port authorities and fishing vessels had spared “major casualties” in Seychelles. However, there “had been material damage to properties,” and reconstruction works would be costly and far reaching.

Kenya and Tanzania were the last two countries to be hit by the tsunami and authorities could verify the devastating potential of the killer wave by looking at the experience in other countries. No infrastructure however existed to warn citizens and the many tourists along the coast.

An emergency plan – designed for minor incidents such as oil spills – was immediately put into action by the Nairobi Foreign Ministry, which had been in contact with the US Embassy and Seychellois authorities. The Kenyan Port Authority and the navy were called to implement the plan. National media were quick to broadcast alerts and all commercial vessels along the Kenyan coast were warned.

The police were ordered to evacuate beaches and to advise artisanal fishing boats without radio communication. Where tourists and locals did not take the warning seriously, armed riot police removed people from the beach. Groups of tourists were driven several kilometres inland.

– By the afternoon of 26 December, all hotels on the Kenyan coast had been alerted and had taken the necessary action to secure their facilities and ensure the safety of their guests, according to the Kenya Tourist Board. “All tourists at Kenyan coastal resorts are safe and unhurt. Damage from the incident was limited to local fishing boats, mainly around Malindi.”

The impressive emergency operations in Seychelles and Kenya probably saved the lives of hundreds of national citizens and tourists. However, large-scale material damages could not be avoided. In Kenya, damages are concentrated on poor fishing communities, which have seen their livelihood destructed.

In Seychelles, damage to the infrastructure was more substantial and Michel already on Thursday officially appealed for international aid. “The tidal surges destroyed bridges and sunk boats off the coasts,” according to the government. Further, they “caused flooding in Victoria – halting activities at both the commercial and fishing ports – as well as in residential areas.”

– The next step is to start work as soon as possible to repair damages and bring lives back to normal, President Michel told his citizens. While appealing for international aid, Seychelles had however also experienced a wave of national solidarity. A National Emergency Disaster Fund has been set up in partnership with the private sector. President Michel hailed locals for donating money and clothes and for sheltering affected tourists.

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