PERALIYA, Sri Lanka (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When the Indian Ocean tsunami swept ashore on Dec. 26, 2004, Supunsara Methmani was just eight years old. But the memories are still fresh in her mind.
“It was like a big white wall, evil, crashing onto us,” said Methmani, now 18. She remembers running to a temple in her village of Peraliya and waiting fearfully until the waters receded.
Then she walked back to the beach to find everything destroyed, and the horror of a train with eight carriages knocked over by the huge wave, with over 1,000 bodies stuck inside.
“People didn’t know - no one knew what it was or how to get away from it,” said Amini Ashanki, a 20-year-old woman from the same village, around 90 km south of the capital Colombo.
Yet escaping from the murderous waves would not have been difficult if people had been properly warned. It took over two and a half hours for the tsunami generated by a powerful undersea earthquake northwest of Indonesia to reach Sri Lanka’s southern shores.
Less than a month after the tragedy, some 20 young people from Peraliya formed a community group to alert fellow villagers to hazards like tsunamis, and to help with the clean-up effort.
With support from individual donors - including an Australian woman named Alison Johnson and Noel Wijesekera, a Sri Lankan doctor living in the area at the time - the group established the Peraliya Community Early Warning Center.
“Our aim was to keep people notified of potential dangers,” said the center’s manager Roshan Waduthantri.
Johnson and Wijesekera would monitor global disaster information systems like the U.S.-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, and inform the local volunteer network of any danger to Sri Lanka.
“At first it was all about spreading the message by word of mouth,” Waduthantri said.
In the past decade, the center has grown from its humble beginnings. Run on a budget of around $700 per month, funded by Johnson, it now has a dedicated staff of eight, and a small office located near the shore with internet access, manned around the clock.
Most importantly, it has set up nine public address systems around the village, consisting of loudhailers mounted on iron poles, and built a network of hundreds of youth volunteers.
A new global plan to reduce the risk of disasters, due to be adopted in Japan this month, will state that children and youth should be given the space and means to contribute to keeping their communities safe.
In Peraliya, the young people disseminate tsunami and storm warnings after they are received by the office, either through the public address system for general alerts, or via mobile phone for more targeted messages to fishermen, for example.
“It is the youth network that is the most important to us because of its penetration and influence,” Waduthantri said.
Around six months ago, the center launched a Youth Volunteer Resilience Group, which has 574 members so far and holds community meetings to raise awareness about extreme weather and changing climate patterns.
Since the tsunami brought disaster to the community, interest has spiked in other types of natural hazards like storms. Ashanki said more and more people in her village were now paying attention to weather risks.
“When we were small, weather was something we learned about at school and only remembered if it came as an examination question,” she said. “The tsunami changed all that - now only a fool would say that weather has no impact on our daily lives.”
The tsunami served as a wake-up call, forcing people to understand how dangerous nature can be, she explained. The area has since experienced frequent storms and flash floods that have made it hard to ignore extreme weather events.
As Peraliya is a fishing village, fishermen living in the area regularly contact the center and its volunteers for weather updates. These have become invaluable as climate shifts make the monsoon season increasingly volatile.
In November 2011, 29 lives were lost in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province when gale-force winds sneaked up on the coast unannounced.
In July 2013, over 70 people were killed by high winds in the same region when the onset of the annual southwest monsoon came faster than anticipated.
According to the youth volunteers, local disasters like these reinforce the value of community networks that can act swiftly.
“In 2004, if we had had the knowledge and the simple network we have in place now, who knows how many lives we could have saved?” Methmani said, as relatives of tsunami victims placed flowers on a mass grave 10 years on from the tragedy.
The Peraliya system stands out because it is a local initiative, experts say.
“In Sri Lanka, ‘community’ groups are almost always set up through outside intervention, usually by the government or the Red Cross,” said Sarath Lal Kumara, assistant director at the Disaster Management Center (DMC), the main government agency overseeing disaster prevention and response efforts.
The DMC has set up village-level groups in high-risk places, and the Red Cross also has volunteer networks at district level which assist with evacuations and other protection measures.
“It is really effective when the community is involved, because they can initiate action much faster than (when) done from us in Colombo,” Kumara said. “But for that to happen we need to build better community-wide awareness.”
(This version of the story corrects timing for new global plan in paragraph 13 to this month)
Reporting by Amantha Perera; editing by Megan Rowling