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Juliette Kayyem

This is not a test

When the tsunami alarms sounded last week in Indonesia, what didn’t happen became an invaluable lesson in disaster management

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THIS IS a test, this is only a test.

Behind those familiar words lies a fundamental tenet of emergency management: Systems to protect the public need to be practiced and validated. As it is, first responders constantly test their response plans. These efforts can be small tabletop exercises, like those performed in the buildup to the Boston Marathon today, or large simulations of catastrophic events with people acting the parts of victims. Some of these exercises are helpful, others a waste of time. But in the end, they don’t fully suffice because everybody knows it is just a test.

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There is no double-blind evaluation, in which both the responders and the potential victims don’t know that it’s simulated. Without such a test, the actors aren’t necessarily following their instincts; they’re following the script.

Most scholars in disaster management acknowledge that the truest evaluation of any response system is one that gets as close to a catastrophe as real life allows, but falls short of real damage. What can we learn from a bad thing that didn’t happen, but that, for a brief while, everyone thought would?

An earthquake struck the coast of Indonesia early last Wednesday, just seven years after a similar quake led to a massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean. That December 2004 wave killed at least 226,000 people in 13 countries; an additional 150,000 deaths were later attributed to infectious diseases fanned by the intense movement of people.

There was no tsunami this time, but the Indonesians didn’t know it at first. Though the world sighed relief, the tsunami-that-didn’t-happen may be one of the most important contributions to global disaster management. In those few hours between fear and safety, a real exercise took place.

It showed that the two most important responses in any disaster are a little bit of warning and a long memory.

Monitoring from the US Geological Survey helped pinpoint where the Indonesian quake struck. Almost immediately, warning sirens were turned on, many of them from local mosques (a brilliant placement of an alert system, given the mosques’ central role and location in most villages). Because of extensive efforts by the Indonesian government and the United Nations, people had been trained about what to do, where to go, and what to bring. They walked, drove, or biked away from identified risk areas.

The evacuation wasn’t perfect. Indonesia has admitted that its alert system, put in place after 2004, may not have been entirely effective. Some evacuation routes got jammed. Television, radio, and cellphones had to fill the gap in communications, as people traveled miles away, believing they had only a few hours before water struck.

That belief, stemming from the memory of 2004, was what would have saved the most lives. Indonesians remember one fact: Those who walked away from the water in 2004 survived. Then, whole villages were saved because the memory of a 1907 tsunami had been shared from generation to generation; when the earth moves, so will the oceans. Indeed, more recently built villages, with new immigrants, were completely eviscerated in 2004 because they had no historical sense of what was to come.

There is a lesson here for all of us. Governments, employers, and neighbors need to alert and educate, especially new populations; only an informed and empowered public can safely navigate a disaster. Stephen Flynn, the co-director of the Kostas Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University and author of “The Edge of Disaster,’’ remarked that “this is a teachable moment to apply scarce money on public education efforts. In a transient nation like ours, citizens often don’t know the simple lifesaving steps they need to take to stay safe and that the locals have learned the hard way - by experience.’’

There is a growing sense that the most sustainable safety investments are those that support and remind people of the basic principles of how to behave in a crisis. Governments can warn and support, but the public may be its own best protector.

Last week, the ocean left Indonesia alone. It seems there is much to learn from what didn’t happen.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem
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