The Monday evening “lake outburst flood” fortunately didn’t cause any damage to life or property along the Punakha–Wangdue valley although it did wash away some bridges high up in Gasa and Laya.
With the news of a possible flood spreading like wildfire abetted by social media, panic caught people living in the low lying valleys. This became worse when the early warning sirens went off. People in the hazard zones were briefed several times in the past that the eerie sound of the sirens would mean danger and they should get to higher grounds.
The memories of glacial lake outburst floods are vivid among those living in the valleys. And they take it seriously. By late evening, most residents in Khurthang were moved to Woolakha, Bajops to the old Wangdue town. These were the two places heavily populated. Some even spent the night in the forest.
When people woke up to a clear bright morning yesterday, they were relieved that except for the swollen muddy Punatsangchu meandering its way through the valley, nothing had happened.
However, looking back, the Monday night incident did us good than harm even if it had caused some inconvenience. Some people in Bajo town were convinced that it was another drill. Even it was a drill, it worked. People on hearing the siren left what they were doing and moved to safer places. That is exactly what they are supposed to do.
It was also an opportunity to test our early warning systems. The systems are working well. It was a good decision to change it to satellite-based, as mobile communications was jammed last night. It would have taken time to trigger the sirens.
The best lesson it taught was that we still lack better coordination in dealing with disasters. Not to deride the good work of the people involved, staying up late, to ensure safety, there were still a lot of things to do.
First still is the information, which is most important during a disaster. We cannot prevent disaster but with reliable and timely information, lives and properties could be saved. Everybody becomes the source of information creating confusion. Facebook and Twitter are not helping. Last night, with everybody on social media, varied information was disseminated prompting a user to accuse media for creating more harm than good.
We still need to coordinate this. The disaster management department should be the source and centre of information. All information could first go to them and then disseminated through media. Sharing information through twitter is limited only to followers and to friends on Facebook. Those with quick and easy access, like ministers, could relay it to a common centre to avoid creating confusion and panic.
This makes the need for a national emergency respond centre more pressing. We are often being tested by nature and we can only prepare well to face it.
It was a good drill yesterday; hopefully it will not be like the story of a boy who cried wolf when a disaster really happens.