ULEE LHEUE, Oct 14 – Sirens wailed and crowds fled across Indian Ocean nations on Wednesday in a mass drill simulating a giant tsunami similar to the 2004 disaster that killed about 220,000 people.
The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the Japan Meteorological Agency sent out bulletins for a 9.2-magnitude quake and tsunami to kick off the UN-backed drill, dubbed "Exercise Indian Ocean Wave 09".
The exercise was aimed at testing warning systems and preparedness in nations in Asia, Australasia, the Middle East and Africa.
Hundreds of people including school children ran from the coast in the Indonesian province of Aceh, the area worst hit by the 2004 tsunami, with 168,000 killed.
Red Cross volunteers, police and soldiers helped people smeared with mud and fake blood into ambulances which carried them away from the coastline.
But for many, the drill only served to revive horrific memories of the real thing.
"This sort of exercise is useful for letting me know if a tsunami strikes. But the sirens and crowds make me panic, they remind me of the 2004 tsunami," said Bachtiar, a resident of the Acehnese town of Ulee Lheue.
Another resident, 20-year-old Risnawati, said Acehnese needed no reminding of a tsunami’s destructive power.
"Acehnese already know how to save their life if a tsunami strikes. They will automatically run to higher ground if there are signs of a tsunami, like receding water," she said.
"It’s impossible to survive a tsunami if we take refuge in that building since it’s too close to the sea," she added, referring to a shelter designated by authorities.
In Sri Lanka, which lost about 31,000 people to the December 2004 disaster, around 200 residents on the southern and eastern coasts carried out a mock evacuation after receiving warnings via mobile phones and loudhailers.
"The exercise took nearly three hours this morning when the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre first alerted us (to begin the exercise)," disaster management head Gamini Hettiarachchi said.
"The test went off very well," he said.
Foreign holidaymakers on the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi were pulled into the exercise when police, soldiers and fireman herded nearly 1,300 people from the seaside to higher ground.
Local police chief Ishak Hasan said solar-powered sirens were not loud enough but otherwise the drill was a success.
Volunteers also helped residents flee in simulations on Pakistan’s southern coast.
Officials in India, Australia and the Maldives said no evacuations were carried out and drills focused on analysing data and testing coordination and communication between government agencies.
Ray Canterford, head of the Australian Tsunami Warning Centre, said officials issued a national tsunami warning 20 minutes after the simulated quake and examined models to see whether a giant wave could hit the west coast.
They found that a 9.2-magnitude quake centred off the northwest coast of Sumatra would impact Australia’s western, northern and southern shorelines within at least four hours.
"We determined that it would reach the level of a marine warning," meaning there would be no land inundation but that dangerous rips and surf conditions could wash people off beaches, Canterford said.
Australia is one of three countries, along with Indonesia and India, which are regional tsunami information providers.
Countries participating in the drill were Australia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Mozambique, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and East Timor.