From Fiji the permanent secretary on information, Sharon Smith-Johns outlined developments to Bruce Hill.
Presenter: Bruce Hill
Speaker: Fiji's permanent secretary on information, Sharon Smith-Johns
HILL: Ms Smith-Johns, not exactly a standard Wednesday afternoon for Fiji was it?
SMITH-JOHNS: No, not exactly Bruce. It certainly wasn't. It's been a pretty busy last two hours.
HILL: Now I understand that a lot actually happened since you got the advisory. What was it that the authorities put in place to respond to the possibility of tsunami?
SMITH-JOHNS: We have, you know some warning and everyone is alerted, so we have the police, DISMAC and all the agencies, the Ministry for Information pushing that information out. We can say looking at this and we've only just walked out of this. But from looking around, the public responded really well. We can hear the sirens around the city. The notices were going out, Facebook messages were going out. We had Vodaphone sending text messages out to people advising them. I sent two out over the Vodaphone network. So the alerting people, I don't think we could have done it better considering how much notice we had that there was a pending tsunami heading this way.
HILL; Well, I notice on social media that you're own Facebook site had a picture of a traffic jam on McGregor Road. Were there actual traffic jams as people were trying to get away from the waterfront to higher ground?
SMITH-JOHNS: They were. The police were in town moving everybody out of the city. Those that were in, on higher ground were told to stay, so there was a traffic jam in getting out of the city and getting onto higher ground and that was pretty much through the city. And that, it probably lasted for an hour. I mean the traffics gone now, but the main thing was just getting people out there at such short notice and making sure that traffic was moving as best we could.
HILL: And what about the schools. You were very specific about the safety of school pupils, especially in schools in coastal areas I understand?
SMITH-JOHNS: Look, we've seen in the past, where schools have let children out here and the schools have been already sitting on high ground, let the schoolchldren out and they've wondered down to the seawall. So we've learnt a lot of lessons over the years with what needs to be done when we have these warnings. So the schools held all students there until further notice, until we cancelled the warning, so that was really encouraging and we had police stopping anyone that might have wanted to down to the seawall and have a look at the tsunami coming, which happens here quite a bit. So along the foreshore and in the city, around Suva, in particular, everyone was moved out, completely moved out of the city.
HILL; Now what happens when these warnings are issued? There's always a fine line isn't there between going too far and not going far enough. How do you draw the ? how do you decide how you cope with this possibility? I mean obviously Fiji's probably lost half a day's productivity as a result of this?
SMITH-JOHNS: Yeah. Look it's it's never easy. We heard the warning, within five minutes, we had the media on standby, but we had to wait for a second confirmation of this to get to us and then it was pushed out. Now they said before with mother nature, you can't second guess what's going to happen. You have to just listen to these advisories and get people to move to high ground. I know that people will certainly be frustrated as works been lost, a traffic jam to get out of the city. But ultimately, if that wave had of hit us, they're all safe, so it's a fine line, but you have to get people to move and we have to take it seriously. The next time we get one of these warnings, whose to say that it is not going to be a natural disaster. So in the position that we're in, we just have to move people out.
HILL; Well, the day you decide not to do anything is the day it's a real serious thing and then they'll blame you?
SMITH-JOHNS: Well, exactly, exactly and I prefer people to be upset that they've been inconvenienced, than devastated through loss of life and that's the way it will always be. And we make sure that these warnings and you can't jump the gun on them Bruce. You've got to weigh up when to send the media out, how much you make people panic, because that's always an issue. But when you've got an hour to get people moving, it's got to be moved now and moved to higher ground.
HILL: Did everyone get the message, because large parts of Fiji are pretty rural and some even don't get great radio reception?
SMITH-JOHNS: Mmm. Oh, look that is hard to say Bruce who, these messages that were going out, that's why we sent them on text messages across the network, radio and we had them on AM and we had all the TV stations. We had, I know people on mobile phones, the coconut wireless, as much as you can. Obviously, there's always going to be pockets of people that you miss.
Tomorrow, yeah, we have a debrief with DISMAC here to go through what went well, what can we learn from, which is good, so we can go in there and have a look and reassess these situations, because it can be a couple of years before the next tsunami warning comes. While it's fresh in our mind, there's processes and things that need to be changed, let's get on it straightaway.
HILL: So perhaps in a certain sense, this is good practice for the real thing?
SMITH-JOHNS: Well, it is, well, it's always good practice. It certainly got our heart beat up at the Ministry of Information this afternoon and everything gets dropped and you just get on and you do it until it's over. So it has, there's been a few lessons learnt and but, ultimately, all in all, we've dealt with this quite well and luckily, the waves missed us and we can get back to lives as normal again.
HILL: OK. Alright, thank you very much indeed for being with us. That was the Fiji Permanent Secretary for Information, Sharon Smith-Johns, live on the phone from Suva.