It was a public holiday when the tremors from the earthquake were felt in the early evening. Some people were at home, while others were enjoying the day at shopping malls and public spaces.
During the chaos which ensued following the issuance of a tsunami threat gleaned via SMS news alerts and the Internet, the absence of any other practical evacuation control or official public information dissemination was most glaring.
Most of people living in Penang call high-rises home. They use the Penang Bridge to cross the Penang channel or the ferry service for the same purpose.
It was very unsettling to find social media sites like Twitter and Facebook go into overdrive with all kinds of “news” to worry even the calmest of people.
When rumours begin swirling that the Penang Bridge was closed and the ferry services were no longer operating, it was no longer amusing.
Yet, no one in authority deemed it timely or necessary to step in and give some form of assurance that the situation was being monitored closely.
Even disappointing is the fact that mobile phone operators did not even think to work with the authorities in coming up with timely alerts for their customers on what can be done during such a situation.
Shopping malls and eateries on the island, especially those fronting the water, decided to close early as a precautionary measure when the first jolt was felt around 4pm and panic followed.
What did not help was no official notification from the police, Civil Defence, Fire and Rescue Services Department, or the state authorities to calm all jitters were forthcoming.
Instead, Penang residents found themselves facing jammed car parks at shopping centres because everyone was clamouring to make their quick exits.
No evidence of crowd control was detected at certain malls, where it was apparent that the so-called security guards were not even capable of speaking properly in English, Bahasa Malaysia or local dialects.
The mind boggles as to how a sea-facing shopping mall in an upmarket residential area could even think of charging the public for the use of their car park at a time when everyone was in panic mode and ready to take flight.
Do profits always take precedence over public safety is what the shoppers are now asking?
One disgruntled shopper shared his tale about how he was advised by some “volunteer police personnel” to take the bus home because over 600 lives had reportedly been claimed in Acheh, and a tsunami was about to hit Langkawi and Penang “anytime now”.
He took the bus and returned to the swanky shopping mall the following day to claim his car. The fact that his parking “ticket” could not be read by the machine was one thing, but even more of a rude shock was the fact that the mall’s security office told him he was to pay for “overnight parking” charges.
The shopper objected and was then asked to pay for the use of the parking facilities for four-and-a-half hours. When he told them he wanted to call for a press conference on the spot, the security department did ask him to pay RM1 and issued him a new ticket to exit his car.
Such a tale and similar ones are being circulated now over the Web and all it does is to leave a poor taste in everyone’s mouths, considering the massive devastation suffered by many countries when the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami which followed, killed over 200,000 people, including nearly 70 in Malaysia, and left large portions of Southeast Asia wrecked.
The mercenary nature of shopping complexes in times of an emergency is appalling and there is no excuse for not being compassionate or for that matter, simply lifting the barricade from the parking levels and allowing cars to exit smoothly and without payment just once.
Of greater concern is the question of whether shopping complex managements are capable of handling mass evacuation procedures and if sufficient training has been given to all its employees.
The public ranging from tourists to locals have a right to know what is happening and more importantly, what they need to do in the event of an impending natural disaster like the tsunami threat.
Fortunately, the tsunami threat on April 11 was an empty one, as waves of a mere four or five inches were reported in some places.