Expert Weighs in on the Tsunami Disaster, Response and Lessons learned from the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami
- James Lee Witt: Former Director of the U.S. FEMA. Chairman of James Lee Witt Associates;
- Brent Woodworth: Manager, IBM's Crisis Response Team;
- Dr. Moh Heng Goh: Director, GMH Continuity Architects;
- Craig Foster: Senior Executive Vice President, Hill and Associates;
- David Cameron: Regional Security Director, Asia/Pacific, International SOS
The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of December 26, 2004, devastated seaside villages and resorts in six countries throughout southern Asia, killing and leaving homeless hundreds of thousands.
To find out what recovery efforts are currently taking place in the affected regions and what's being done to improve readiness for future disasters of this nature, we turned to the following key individuals involved in the recovery and mitigation efforts: James Lee Witt, led a mission of the US-ASEAN Business Council to affected areas and is Chairman of James Lee Witt Associates; Brent Woodworth, worldwide segment manager for IBM's Crisis Response Team; Dr. Moh Heng Goh, President of BCM Institute (Present); David Cameron, regional security director, Asia/Pacific, for International SOS; and Craig Foster, Senior Executive Vice President at Hill and Associates acted as the lead crisis response consultant for Hill and Associates in Southern Thailand.
GUIDE: Some involved in the recovery have stated that there is an opportunity to rebuild the region with more sustainable communities and to improve their emergency management and recovery capabilities. What kinds of initiatives are being talked about to achieve this?
Witt: We would like to create a smooth transition from response to the recovery and reconstruction phase and lay the groundwork for sustainable development. We plan to do this by assessing the state of recovery efforts in affected areas and meeting with appropriate government and business officials; assessing the damage and ongoing response efforts and identifying the remaining priorities for short- and long-term response and reconstruction; identifying ways to develop partnerships with the private sector and the international community; and proposing a set of strategies for each area of recovery and reconstruction so that the regional governments will be in a positive position for success.
Woodworth: The level and type of rebuilding efforts will vary from country to country. In some cases the level of damage was so extensive that rebuilding efforts will take several years. In some locations only a small handful of survivors remain. The infrastructure (roads, power and communication lines, etc.) have been totally destroyed in many areas. My first impression when flying in a helicopter over the Aceh coastal impact zone was the apocalyptic scale of the devastation. It truly looked like a nuclear wasteland; no buildings, no roads, no trees, no people - just debris, standing water, and bodies. The original 100-year-old Banda Aceh, Indonesia, homes were elevated 5 to 7 feet off the ground. Perhaps their owners knew of the possible danger from the ocean and factored it into their building plans.
Logic dictates that you should not rebuild in harm's way, or if you must, you should build more wisely and educate the population about the risks they face and actions to take in a crisis. In some locations the government is trying to restrict building to prevent a recurrence. In other cases proactive early warning systems are being considered to help people evacuate in time. In some regions the land is flat or there is very limited elevation above the ocean for 7 to 10 kilometers inland. A 15-meter-high wave traveling at 35 mph will damage or destroy just about everything in its path. Rebuilding, planning, and preparing for the possible impact of such an event will be a significant challenge.
Goh: The governments in the affected regions will certainly draw on these lessons to improve the situation. However, most governments will also contend with other key economic issues. There will be a contention for valuable resources. Some governments, like India, will continue to strengthen their emergency management and response capabilities, while other governments may divert their efforts to solve other economic issues deemed more pressing from their perspective.
From a BC/DR practitioner viewpoint, we could do more to increase the level of awareness within organizations on the benefits of emergency, crisis, and business continuity management. For example, even in relatively "safe" Singapore, the 2nd Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Tony Tan, and Minister of Home Affairs, Mr. Wong Kan Seng, hosted a dialogue with the members of the Singapore Business Federation. The event was held on January 24, one month after the tsunami incident. The primary purpose and message of the session was to impress on business leaders that they and their organizations must play an active role.
Governments can try to put in measures to support the community during emergencies. There is a general lacking in the focus on this area as economic initiative takes priority. However, business leaders and organizations must also play their part. They should put in place measures for emergency preparedness and instill among citizens the sense of responsibility and the importance of emergency management and BCM.
GUIDE: Has a rough timeline been established for any such activities?
Witt: Recovery and reconstruction for a disaster of this magnitude depends on the location and severity of damage, but could be 5-10 years. Even in the United States, more than 10 years have passed since Hurricane Andrew, and areas of South Florida are still in the reconstruction phase. We estimate that the recovery and reconstruction in these areas will take at least 5 years. I believe, from talking with the United Nations and international partners, that these organizations will be there to assist as long as it takes.
Goh: From the organizational perspective, sadly the drive toward educating the public and strengthening emergency management capabilities has been very slow, and in most cases not forthcoming, at least not in the next few months. One possible reason is that Asian cultures do not like to talk or reminisce about disasters. The tendency has always been to remember the good and happy events. In many cases, it is taboo to discuss disasters. Most organizations, other than those in the banking and finance sector and international multinational corporations, are still grappling with the justification to senior management to implement BCM.
GUIDE: Are the tsunami warning systems currently in place in more developed parts of the world adequate to facilitate a successful evacuation? If not, what needs to be done to improve these warning systems?
Witt: There are significant steps being taken to implement new or employ existing tsunami warning systems. I believe the more important issue following the implementation of an international system is an effective public awareness campaign to educate citizens, tourists, and business owners on the proper steps to take before a disaster and when a warning is sounded.
In addition to a tsunami warning system is the role that building codes and standards play in these regions. Frank Hodge, president of the International Code Council, is part of the US-ASEAN mission to assist these regional governments in this area.
Woodworth: The tsunami warning systems currently being used in parts of Japan are considered "state of the art" and very effective for issuing an early warning. Similar systems could prove helpful in countries impacted by the recent tsunami that do not have any type of system installed today. Education and additional electronic methods of spreading early warning messages are currently being reviewed by many of these countries.
Goh: In Asia, other than Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore, the public warning systems in most other major cities can be improved. For example, in India, the Indian government has been doing a fair amount of work in the area of disaster management. Unfortunately, India is a huge country and many of their island states or towns still need to improve their level of preparedness. Very often, even the public is not adequately prepared for disasters.
GUIDE: Do companies on the U.S. coasts face the possibility of a disaster such as this one? If so, what would you advise these companies do to prepare for such an event?
Woodworth: An undersea earthquake or slide can easily trigger a tsunami that could hit the U.S. coast. The level of the tsunami is directly dependent on the type and magnitude of undersea disruption and the proximity of the coast to that disruption. U.S. companies with employees who live or work in low-lying coastal areas need to be educated about tsunami risks and how to obtain evacuation warning information following a seismic event. Planning and education are always the best defense.
GUIDE: Have you been able to determine the business impact of the disaster, not only on a regional scale but on a global economic scale?
Woodworth: A final total is not yet available, and no one can put a price on the over 300,000 lives lost in this tragic event. I have observed large scale regional businesses that have put in place aggressive rebuilding plans to get plants back operating (e.g., a cement plant in Aceh that was 80 percent destroyed has plans to rebuild and reopen). One of the challenges will be to help limit over-inflated prices because of limited supply, greed, or unscrupulous activities that can occur following a disaster.
Foster: For our Fortune 500 clients this appears to be primarily a psychological impact. Disasters such as this one are completely indiscriminate, and some of the largest U.S. multinational corporations had no staff affected by the tsunami. During my period of crisis response in Phuket only eight U.S. citizens were reported missing in Thailand. However, for those firms that did have staff missing, the entire organization became preoccupied and monitored the response and recovery very carefully. The more proactive of these firms felt a strong "duty of care" and also recognized the business continuity, staff retention, and overall PR benefits of a proactive response.
GUIDE: What was the greatest lesson learned from the recovery efforts after the tsunami disasters?
Goh: The support from the government of neighboring countries was good. However, the primary weakness was in getting the early warning messages across to the people, and the coordination of recovery and relief efforts can be improved. Organizations, too, have a part to play in this. Business organizations need to train their staff and make them aware of emergency measures within the organization and the community.
Another lesson we learn is how governments, humanitarian organizations (local and international), the military, and the civil emergency services work together at the scene of disasters. Also, we need to address the issues surrounding the partnerships between affected countries and aid agencies, including ethical issues such as neutrality and impartiality.
Cameron: There are many lessons from the emergency response perspective, in particular the importance of effective cooperation among non-government organizations. The UN body charged with responsibility for managing the initial emergency response did an excellent job, but there is a great deal of unnecessary competition between aid agencies that does not actually assist the aid effort.
Other key lessons we believe were learned in the emergency response are that companies' crisis management plans must have sufficient coverage to cope with incidents that occur during leave periods. This requires that alternates are appointed when primary personnel are away on leave and that the escalation system is perhaps adapted to fit these periods. Also, plans at the different levels of the organization should accurately describe the respective levels of work for the teams. Companies must be careful in selecting the individuals that they send to disaster sites. These individuals should be trained and, ideally, experienced, and they should be appropriately equipped and have received the necessary inoculations prior to departure. Redundancy of communications equipment and access to cash are probably the most important enabling elements for incident management teams. Blackberries and satellite phones are two very valuable tools in these situations. Finally, corporations need to have very clear policies on whom and what is covered in regard to these types of situations. Employees should have clear and accurate expectations in regard to what the company will provide in the event of a natural disaster. Lack of clarity here will lead to problems between employee and employer down the track.
Foster: In terms of business continuity and recovery, those multinational corporations that had invested in crisis planning and had tested and socialized such plans responded best. In today's very interconnected and interdependent business world, firms that manage risk strategically and proactively will command a competitive advantage.
GUIDE: What was the greatest achievement you witnessed come out of the recovery efforts?
Witt: The greatest achievement was the ability for the world community to come together, including organizations such as US-ASEAN, whose businesses were not directly affected by the disaster but offered their resources to help. The U.S. response efforts have been unprecedented, both by our government and also our citizens. Led by former Presidents Clinton and Bush, estimates currently place the level of America's private giving at over $1 billion to help the South Asian countries. This type of support shows the United States joins the international community in their commitment to have a strong recovery in that region.
Woodworth: The ability of mankind to come together and help those in need without a political, social, religious, or economic objective.
Goh: In general, the collaborative efforts and support from the governments around the region in the initial disaster recovery stage indicated that inter-government support is now more forthcoming than in the past. Governments are willing to put their differences away to serve a common humanitarian objective.
Foster: Such extreme situations inevitably bring out the best and worst in humanity. I commend the tireless volunteers and aid agencies for their dedication and compassion. Many institutions such as airlines, banks, credit card companies, and telcos shared sensitive information and operated on a peer group basis to assist in the search and rescue of missing loved ones.
About the Experts James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Infrastructure Summit delegation assisting Indonesia with prioritizing necessary infrastructure projects. In March, he led a mission sponsored by the US-ASEAN Business Council to assess the damage from the earthquake and tsunami. In concert with governments in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Thailand, his company, James Lee Witt Associates, helped identify priorities for long-term recovery and reconstruction. Mr. Witt also serves as the CEO of the International Code Council, a membership association dedicated to building safety and fire prevention.
Brent Woodworth is the worldwide segment manager for IBM's Crisis Response Team, which landed in Southern India shortly after the disaster and worked with local team members to help reduce suffering, deliver needed supplies, and provide critical decision making information to the government authorities managing the relief effort. Once the India operations were well defined, Woodworth and his team flew to Sri Lanka and then Indonesia and Thailand. In each case team members were assigned to remain and join with local IBM resources to begin providing support.
Dr. Moh Heng Goh is Executive Director for DRI Asia (now President of BCM Institute), and Director for GMH Continuity Architects. Moh Heng has been in communication with practitioners in the region to solicit their feedback and knowledge following the events. The purpose of the feedback is to focus on the activities within organizations during and after the event.
Craig Foster, Senior Executive Vice President at Hill and Associates acted as their lead crisis response consultant in Southern Thailand. He was supported in the field by five Thai colleagues deployed from Bangkok and remotely by a research center and a global crisis response center in the company's Bangkok and Hong Kong offices. He arrived in Phuket on December 27 at the request of numerous corporate clients who retain the company for such contingencies. He traveled between Phuket, Krabi, Phi Phi Island, and Khao Lak until January 4. He was involved in the search and rescue of survivors, the identification of remains, and the facilitation and escort of family members seeking the remains of their loved ones.
David Cameron is the regional security director, Asia/Pacific, for International SOS and is responsible for the delivery of all security services to clients in that region. He deployed to Phuket and Banda Aceh from December through January as part of his company's response to the tsunami, mainly to lead the missing persons search. His deployment to Banda Aceh was to undertake an initial survey prior to the establishment of a forward operating base. He was also part of the operations team that was responsible for managing the response from December 26 onward.