The Catastrophe That Never Was


Turning off my mobile phone when going to bed saved me my sleep the other Sunday. Running away from another layer of stress after official

working hours, for years now I have learnt to switch off my mobile phone the minute I got home in the night.

I cut myself off completely from any work laden and unwarranted calls or text messages. For me, coming home after almost 12 hours out there meant absolute privacy and time to unwind for the next day.

My bosses sometimes castigated me for the habit so acquired. I did not mind much because I realised what it meant was that while they could not reach me after working hours when they wanted something fixed I was able to relax through the night for the hectic day ahead.

The reality is that but for that adopted practice, I would also have gone through a troubled night last week Sunday. I had a sound sleep and so did my household. We woke up on Monday morning to learn about the catastrophe that never was. The earthquake scare that kept many families awake sleeping in the open all night never got to my notice until it was all over.

Without even questioning who sent out that first message which supposedly originated from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the authoritative British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the panic so created has revealed a few things that we as a nation must come to grips with. But that aside, let us take it as a “fire drill” that tested our knowledge about earthquakes and our readiness for a calamity of the sort and the evacuation processes available to us as individuals.

Of course, thanks to foreign news footage over the past couple of weeks, we continue to see the vivid images of the tragedy that hit Haiti as a result of the 7.0 magnitude quake which, according to some estimation, have claimed up to 200,000 lives and left over 1.5 million people homeless.

The human cost which is too graphical to wipe out of anyone’s memory no doubt stood fresh in many minds when the unfortunate text messages started making the rounds. With at least 75,000 bodies so far buried in mass graves and many more left to be collected in the streets, definitely everybody would want to run away from such a devastation.

And so with Haiti still fresh in people’s minds, families grabbed whatever they could wrap themselves with on receiving the news around midnight and reached for safety in open spaces. That probably might have been the most sensible thing to have done in the spur of the moment.

Many questions have been asked and discussions have taken place over the last 10 days or so on natural occurrences such as earthquakes.

We are happy that it was only a hoax but the flip side of it all is that it has afforded Ghanaians some education and awareness on quakes and tremors.

Many of us by now are aware that when that unfortunate natural disaster happens there is never a prior warning but at least we know what to do to minimise harm should it happen. In the last few days, many tips have come from the experts on what to do and what not to do whether it is an earthquake, a tremor or a tsunami.

The fake text message that started it all and which read: “Today’s night 12:30 to 3.30 a.m. COSMIC PAYS entering Earth from Mass. Switch off our mobiles today’s night. NASA BBC News, plz pass to all your friends” was certainly passed on like a wild fire and has succeeded in waking us up to some realities that we have glossed over and which we need to take account of with all seriousness.

Many times as individuals, we have received re-cycled text or email messages or even anonymous telephone calls with scary details, warnings or prompting. Some invariably turn out to be false but they somehow jerk us into action, fear or despair.

The question is how much seriousness one should attach to such serial messages to the extent of allowing them to overtake reasoning and in the process, send us into the kind of stampede that we witnessed that Sunday night.

Security experts have told us over and over again that one should not ignore any threats bordering on security. That is why I believe that for those of us who know very little about quakes and tremors, the action taken by some to spend that night in the open was not an overreaction.

In the wake of the unfortunate serial killing of women in Dansoman and Mataheko some 10 years ago, I received an anonymous telephone call on my landline one night. The caller refused to give his name but he threatened that he was coming to my house that night to suck the blood out of me. It may have been a hoax but did I have to sit unconcerned thinking so without taking any precautionary measure?

The alleged NASA BBC News report of Sunday January 17, 2010 must rather remind us of the poor planning of our cities and towns and the need to take action now against any eventualities. We are advised that in a time of a tremor or quake, the most advisable thing to do is to get to an open space such as a park where there are no structures or trees or even go under a table to minimise damage or serious injury. Really, how many parks or commons are currently available to us in our neighbourhoods?

Estate developers are busy making money depending on the number of houses they can cover and ignore plans for the inclusion of recreational grounds or commons in their layouts and manage to get their plans approved for take-off. So why would an encroacher not also grab some unutilised land he comes across to put some roof over his head?

And then the lawlessness begins. It is time for our planners to begin to enforce the creation of commons in all new communities that are coming up.

That links in to the granting of building permits. I have often wondered whether our city planners approve building permits just so that the city authorities can earn some revenue or whether their expertise in safety comes to play when it comes to approving building permits.

The dangerous nature of some of the structures one sees around even to a layman suggests not.

In all this however, and probably the most important of all, is perhaps the question as to how prepared and ready our disaster management set-ups are. In the event that the unfortunate strikes, would survivors have enough to survive on while we wait for external assistance to come from thousands of miles away?

That is the key awakening that the catastrophe that never was must have brought home to us. How prepared are we if the tragedy comes to pass especially now that we know that there can never be a prior warning. Are we ever ready?