Ron Harris thought that when he published academic papers forecasting the next natural disasters in Indonesia, the information needed to keep people safe would trickle down to the them.
But it didn’t. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami hit, killing about 230,000 people in 14 countries.
“It was just a shock,” said Harris, a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at Brigham Young University. “I personally felt like I had blood on my hands. I knew what was going to happen.”
He realized only a few people would read his academic papers, which were in English and written in technical language. Even information in newspapers wouldn't make it out of the big cities, and reports to the government never seemed to make it to the people.
“That was a wakeup call for me,” Harris said. “I thought I was doing all I could to protect the people and I realized that all of my efforts were being wasted because I was focused on the academic aspect of what I was doing. I wasn’t going to the places where people were in harm’s way and telling them.”
So he set up a nonprofit, In Harm’s Way, to try to raise funds to teach people how to protect themselves. In July, two BYU professors, 12 BYU students, three Utah Valley University faculty members and a couple of UVU students set out for a five-week trip to the island of Java in Indonesia, partly funded by a grant from Geoscientists Without Borders, and with some paying their way there.
Pairing with an Indonesian university, the group was able to teach about 3,000 people how to know if a tsunami is coming and how to evacuate.
“I can’t even begin to express how many miracles happened and how we felt like this work we were doing was so much larger than ourselves,” Harris said. “This was something that needed to happen and people embraced us and what we are doing.”
One of their messages, 20-20-20, teaches people that if the ground shakes for 20 seconds, then they have 20 minutes to evacuate to 20 meters elevation. It was a simple message, but effective because most of the people didn’t understand that it’s more of the duration of an earthquake, not the intensity, that can cause a tsunami.
“That is something the education team did that will save lives,” said Daniel Horns, associate dean of the College of Science and Health at UVU. “I’ll say that outright. It will save lives for those people if there is a significant earthquake in the near future.”
In 2006, a tsunami hit the island that killed about 600 people.
“Most people would have been saved with this kind of education,” Horns said.
He said the researchers will return to Indonesia next summer to continue the project.
The group studied geologic evidence to see how high the waves could go, tested the population’s baseline knowledge of tsunamis and did posttests after educational sessions. During evacuation drills, they were able to test to see if evacuation points were high enough, and learned that the children were more than willing to show them where to go.
“A lot of the students already knew where to evacuate for a tsunami,” said Sarah Hall, an assistant professor of public and community health at UVU. “They’d start running and we’d be running after them.”
There are tsunami warning systems on the island, but Hall said they aren’t hooked up because of cost, so the residents could be waiting for sirens to go off that never will. The group also learned that most people also thought they had an hour to evacuate instead of 20 minutes.