Today marks the 10th anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies that Asia has witnessed in its history. When the Tsunami struck, to be very honest, most of us hadn’t even heard of the word as we had never experienced one before. There was utter confusion when the tidal waves 10 metres high, hit the coastal areas of most of Sri Lanka, with it taking the entire communications system in the affected areas. Information was sketchy and confusion reigned supreme. The radio amateur community heard about it when a frantic call crackled through the VHF repeater from Galle by one of our members, to tell us that massive tidal waves had swept through Galle town and even washed off a section of the hospital in Mahaodara.
As the hours ticked by the full extent of this horrendous disaster was unfolding and the Prime Minister’s office was appealing to the country for any means possible to assist in the disaster. While people were rushing to collect food and clothing, the amateur radio community sprang into action informing the PM’s office that we could provide emergency communications. It was hard to contact the PM’s office as the phone lines were saturated and a messenger was sent to try to get in contact with the PM’s disaster centre. In the meantime, the Radio Society of Sri Lanka (RSSL) got a team together to head for Tissamaharama as we had some logistical support there a few kilometres inland to set up a base camp. The plan was to assess the damage and requirements and flash back the information to Colombo to do whatever was possible.
As the team was about to leave at midnight a call came from the PM’s office to inquire whether we could really provide communications telling us that there was no electricity and it was hard to even assess the situation there. We assured that we could do our job. When asked what the Government could do to assist, we stated that we were well prepared, self-reliant and we needed only official sanction/blessing by the PM’s office for our operations. We were requested to go to Hambantota as the destruction was heavy and that they feared deaths as high as 8000. and for our disaster operations centre to set up at Temple Trees as part of the Prime Minister’s disaster operations centre.
Within 20 minutes of arriving at Hambantotala the RSSL team set up HF and VHF stations and a stream of desperate and heartbreaking messages started pouring into the disaster management Centre at Temple Trees. Meanwhile radio amateurs all over Sri Lanka were standing by assisting with relays of weak signals at times and transcribing and forwarding information to the relevant authorities.
In the meantime a request came from the Secretary to the PM to seek assistance for a mobile team to go along the devastated coast to assess damage and requirements and convey the information to the disaster operations centre. The Govt. was requested to provide transport and armed escort as the security situation was volatile. Within an hour two hams undertook the arduous journey taking two days to reach Matara often taking inland routes to reach coastal towns, backtracking and again going forward. They were met with broken bridges, ruined building and devastated survivors. The Yatiyantota VHF repeater helped a great deal in this mobile effort.
For three days the radio amateurs kept their network going before the police and military took over operations.
A full report is being compiled with credits and commendations. In the meantime the Radio Society remembers with pride and gratitude the heroic service by the radio amateur community in our country’s hour of need.
Disaster operations and the destruction that met the RSSL team