Hope within the storm | Sunday Observer

Hope within the storm

Sri Lanka was once again battered with torrential rain and relentless flooding with many areas being completely submerged and isolated. As road access became almost impossible the nation’s armed forces and police activated their contingency plans. Their combined and coordinated efforts saved thousands of lives, at a time of great distress. The Navy continued their role in moving people to safety using 112 boats. Naval rescue teams including divers numbered up to 930 sailors and officers. The teams were responsible for saving 9,297 civilians as of May 30 and distributed 150,800 ration packs. The Director General of Naval Operations Rear Admiral Piyal de Silva said, “We are the first responders in a flood disaster. We monitor the adverse weather conditions and inform our area commanders to be on standby”. The navy deployed its 4R Team (formerly known as Rapid Action Boat Squadron) to three districts. The recently formed Marine Battalion was also busy clearing areas and helping with initial repairs.

The Army showed their prowess on land as the first responders, moving in 1,700 men with a mobilization of vehicles. One of the key officers involved in the rescue efforts is Major General Sudantha Ranasinghe, Commander Security Forces HQ - West. Along with Security Forces- HQ Central the Army engaged in a massive deployment of troops from Gemunu Watch, Sinha Regiment, Light Infantry, National Guard Battalion, Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment, Engineer Regiment, Commando and Special Forces who were empowered with specialized vehicles from the Armoured Corps and Mechanized Infantry Regiment.

Maj. General Ranasinghe said, “We are always prepared to activate our contingency plans. Initially, we sent our men to Galle - Matara, Akuressa - Embilipitiya, Kalutara - Panadura and Ratnapura - Kalawana areas. We used our engineers to clear and open roads”. He also mentioned that 5 logistics platoons have now been sent to help clean up contaminated wells. Maj. General Ranasinghe also stated, “We had the 14 Division on standby to respond to any crisis if areas in and around Colombo, like Kaduwela, Malabe, Kolonnawa became flooded”. The Army displayed their teamwork capability by rapidly building a bund in the Baddegama area in less than 12 hours, with the support of 100 soldiers. This timely action prevented further flooding. In Matara, the troops were deployed again to make a flood retention wall. This challenge was undertaken by 9SR battalion who laboured in the rain and completed the wall, thereby saving the entire Matara town from flooding.

One of the specialized vehicles used by the Army in these perilous muddy waters is the WMZ -51 armored vehicle. I was able to get into one of these at Kelaniya. The 12 ton WMZ has amphibious capability and runs on 6 large wheels (the BTR- Bronetransporter is slightly larger and runs on 8 wheels and can carry 20 persons). WMZ has a top speed of 108 Km on land and 8 Km in water. In addition to the 3 man crew they can carry 8 rescued civilians. Some WMZ crews had come all the way from Polonnaruwa. The crew also carried food to stranded folk.

The SLAF

Another vital component in the Army rescue is the men of the Engineer Regiment. Their Chief Field Engineer, Major General Dananjith Karunaratne said, “We have effectively used our excavators, backhoe loaders, motor graders, dump trucks and rock breakers to clear areas and connect road access”. The engineers undertook these tasks in risk laden areas where landslides had already occurred. Medical teams were also sent from the Directorate of Army Health Services.

The SLAF played a crucial role in rescue operations. Helicopter crews flew in inclement weather by day and night and saved hundreds of stranded people. Group Captain Gihan Seneviratne said, “We used our beach craft which has a long flying endurance to observe affected areas and relay real time updates”. The SLAF, by May 30 had flown 150 sorties with a total flight time of 160 hours delivering 84,970 meal packets and 29,780 bottles of water. He is also of the opinion that in responding to future natural disasters we must have a few roads in key areas that can double up as runways in an emergency, siting Germany as an example. UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) can also be set in motion to monitor changing weather patterns that will help ground rescue teams operate with increased efficiency and safety.

STF

The Police Special Task Force was also instrumental in many rescues. Its Commandant, Senior DIG M. R. Lattif said, “We organized our men to deploy to Kalutara, Ratnapura and Galle. We also did patrolling in some areas to protect property left behind”. The STF men launched their kayaks in Kahawatte and Morawakkanda areas. In addition, armoured Unicorn vehicles were used to move flood victims who subsequently received medical treatment.

We have witnessed that in all natural disasters as way back as the 2004 Tsunami, it was the tri forces who spearheaded rescue operations. This can be attributed to their contingency planning and availability of manpower and resources. As the waters engulfed many regions, the tri forces were active in preparing ready-to-eat meals. A hygienic meal has the ability to cheer up a victim who has lost so much.

The Army produced 13,000 packets of rice and curry at their cooking station in Kelaniya beginning to cook at 10pm and completing the task by 4 am daily. Subsequently, the SLAF pilots and helicopter crews did a sterling job by distributing these packs via their Ratmalana base. The inter-operability of forces is a classic example of teamwork.

Other authorities also contributed to the relief measures, yet, as an island nation we must shift our focus from being prepared to a state of prevention. The preventive aspect of disaster mitigation is key to avoiding large numbers of casualties. Disaster warning must come under a unified chain of command. A human life cannot be replaced. People also need to learn to listen to those in authority, especially, in times of being asked to evacuate. The public must understand the complexities and risks encountered by the rescuing personnel i.e. - fallen electricity cables in the water.

Sadly, some of our citizens visit the rescue sites and take selfies, disturbing the men at work. These folk cause unwanted crowding in a very hazardous environment. After the initial outpouring of support from the public in two weeks it will be the armed forces who will continue to support the people to re-establish their lives. It is the doctors from the Army, Navy and Air Force along with civil medical teams who initiated treatment for the sick during this calamity. Controlling vector borne diseases is another vital task at hand. We cannot predict natural disasters but certainly, we can have tested plans to face them. Therefore, the role of the tri forces must be remembered, supported and appreciated by all Sri Lankans.


SECURING THE EXPRESSWAY

During the floods the Southern expressway also got affected badly. We visited the Galanigama Special Task Force (STF) Command Station with Inspector, R.M.U.K.B. Ratnayake where two ambulances and one fire engine are on standby day and night to rescue people from various difficulties from fire, floods to accidents. Working alongside the Road Development Authority (RDA) and Traffic Police the STF manage five main stations and three sub stations along the expressway adhering to international standards.


Inspector R.M.U.K.B. Ratnayaka 

The eight member crew work on shifts, be it rain or shine. When a motorist calls 1969 the emergency is categorized and relayed to the STF operator who in turn will dispatch the rescue crews.

The crews will arrive and assist to safely remove victims of high speed motor accidents. The men have specialized equipment to cut through the vehicle. The ambulances have advanced support systems to take accident victims, especially, those with spinal injuries. The officers work in all weather conditions.

The married men are sent on leave after 31 days and bachelors get leave after a 41 day service period. From Galanigama we went onto Welipanna inter-change, where the team was housed in a modified container. (It would be better if they had a permanent office).

The expressway has beautiful natural scenery and often motorists get distracted enjoying the views and crash. IP Ratnayake emphasizes the need for motorists to drive within the regulated speed and plan ahead of their turning exits. Safety remains a priority. To-date they have saved 703 lives and managed to control 85 burning vehicles.

Our final stop was at Kurundhegahawatte station where large LED monitors relayed real time images to operators. It is a dedicated team of personnel who work behind the scene to keep us safe. Apart from their rescue role the STF unit also takes part in random checks to search for narcotics smuggling and other contraband. 

 

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