Students participating in tsunami drills in Khao Lak, Thailand. Photo Credits: Dany Oliveira, UNDP Asia Pacific

 

26 December 2020: Exactly 16 years ago on what began as a regular Sunday morning, Ban Bangak school, in beautiful Phang Nga province in Thailand, was quiet. The students were at home and some teachers were marking a religious celebration.

“We felt that something was not right. We raised our heads and saw the coconut trees falling down at an impressive speed and suddenly we had a wall of water in our direction.” Ms. Nadda Thongdee, a teacher at Ban Bangsak school recalls the fateful morning. “We just had time to get in the car and drove in the direction towards the top of the school. At a certain point, we had to leave the car behind and run to save ourselves.

Nadda Thongdee, a teacher at Ban Bangsak was in the school when the tsunami struck in 2004. Photo Credits: Dany Oliveira, UNDP Asia-Pacific

 

The teacher survived. A few students did not as their homes were washed away. Many more would have lost their lives had they been in school; the school, located more than a kilometer from the Andaman coastline was completely destroyed.

Students prepare for tsunami 

Three weeks ago, over 650 students – between 4 and 18 years old - gathered in the same vicinity to learn about tsunami preparedness. The school renamed the 35th Rajaprajanugroh School, was rebuilt on higher ground, above the destroyed school which now serves as a football field. Most of the students were not born or were too little when the devastating tsunami hit, and many of the elders did not wish to recall what they had survived.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the tsunami preparedness programme in the school, Renaud Meyer, Resident Representative of the UN’s Development Programme in Thailand highlighted: “We prepare for tsunamis because it’s not about if it will happen, but when it will happen”. It is a special day for the school as representatives from the Ministry of Education, the UNDP, and the Government of Japan are present to witness the programme and safe evacuation drill, part of a regional project aimed at school tsunami preparedness in 23 Asia Pacific countries. These students will join the 150,000 students that have been trained to be tsunami prepared by the UNDP with funding support from the Government of Japan.

As the senior guests are greeted by the students with flowers gently placed on their lapels, the atmosphere is of curiosity, enthusiasm and seriousness. The palpable energy reveals the importance of the day – it is days like these that can make all the difference. It is days like these that spark hope that as powerful and unpredictable as nature may be, lives can be saved with preparedness. Teacher Thongdee, who is now retired and was invited to join the school programme, says, “I wish we were taught about the tsunami so many years ago. I am happy that these students will be informed and prepared.”

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The preparedness programme begins with students learning about tsunami warning signs, first aid and rescue measures, how to seek mental health counselling – all in creative and interactive ways as taught by teachers from 23 high risk tsunami schools in Phang Nga who had been trained in the Training of Trainers Programme, the Thai Red Cross Society, and facilitator of the Red Bear Survival Camp. Care is taken to ensure that students are wearing masks and regularly hand wash, as the organisers try to adhere to COVID-19 measures.

As the programme moves towards testing the school’s tsunami preparedness plan, a simulation exercise led by  representatives from the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM) with participation of school administrators and teachers seems to confirm coordination and protocols for the evacuation drill that will take place.

At 2 pm the siren sounded: TSUNAMI ALERT. And suddenly, in an orderly and serious manner, more than 650 students and teachers were heading towards higher ground to the school’s basketball court, the designated safe evacuation area. The headcount revealed that some students were missing – this was part of the evacuation exercise – and the search and rescue team was deployed to find them and bring them to safety. Almost an hour later, all students present were accounted for and considered to be safe.

The day’s programme was observed by teachers from schools across the province, invited especially to learn from the practice and implement a similar programme in their school. At the debriefing they acknowledged the challenge of coordination and communication, key to the success of such a large-scale drill. 

 

Scaling up school preparedness

In the three years of the project being implemented in Thailand, over 2,500  students and teachers are prepared, a national guideline for Tsunami Evacuation Plans and Drills for Schools has been produced and a Training of Trainer’s Manual for Tsunami School Evacuation Drill has been developed. A video on the steps for conducting a drill was produced and shared widely as a resource for school preparedness. In connection to this, the programme also highlights measures to assist students and persons with special needs, ensuring that they will not be left behind when disasters occur.

The biggest achievement is still to come. The Office of the Basic Education Commission under the Ministry of Education is committed to conduct safe evacuation drills as part of their emergency plans in educational institutions. In addition, they are planning to extend the programme to other five Andaman Costal provinces which got affected by the Tsunami in 2004. The guidelines and manual will be disseminated to 27,000 tsunami and disaster-prone schools, as part of a comprehensive disaster preparedness package. Schools which are not located in tsunami-prone areas can also apply the guidelines’ techniques to work with their students to complete their emergency plans and drills according to their disaster contexts. “ I would like to thank the Government of Japan, UNDP, the Thai Red Cross Society, and the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation under the Ministry of Interior for strong collaboration and support, this will benefit schools in tsunami-prone areas to raise awareness and preparedness for schoolteachers, educational personnel, and students " - finalized Amporn Pinasa, Secretary-General of the Office of the Basic Education Commision, Ministry of Education.

As new students enter school every year, so too must disaster preparedness and drills.

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