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Get off the beach warning not good enough

Almost five years ago a quarter of a million people died because they had no time, knowledge and warning about the dangers of tsunamis.  On a remote island in Thailand at the time, I was one of thousands of people who literally lined up along the beachfront to watch the tsunami arrive. We were not on the beach.  We were standing on the foreshore, staring in fascination at the wave rushing towards us.

 As a journalist, I wrote about it at the time. “A tsunami announces its arrival,” I said, describing those moments when we all knew a massive wave was approaching but failed to take steps (running steps) to save ourselves.

 Today, an unknown number of people also lost their lives to a tsunami that hit Samoa. It is not yet clear how many of them would have been saved by better warnings and better education.

 Hundreds of kilometres away, New Zealanders were alerted to the approaching tsunami.  “Get off the beach”, was the message that was resoundly repeated through the media.

 I fear nothing has been learned from those lives lost in tsunamis past. I trawl through the internet, and see photograph after photograph of people in New Zealand standing on the tops of beaches, eyes fixed on the horizon. Children on driftwood tree stumps just metres from the shoreline. Even a police vehicle parked on the sand – a centurion to what? Naivety? Foolish courage? 

My friends who died in the Boxing Day tsunami knew what was coming. Some of them even warned others to run for their lives – and then stood and watched the final approach. I have spent hours in conversations with survivors, and have concluded that we suffered a form of pre-shock, not unlike that experienced by a bunny frozen in a headlight.

You can’t play chicken with a tsunami. You can’t outrun one either, once you decide the time for sightseeing has ended and lifesaving has begun.

Unlike Samoans, and possibly many other Pacific Islanders, it seems that New Zealanders were saved yesterday, not by wise actions, but by the fact that nature chose not to land tonnes of water on those very beaches lined with spectators. But will they be so lucky next time?