Over 200 million people are living in an archipelago prone to disasters ranging from earthquakes and active volcanoes, not to mention flooding and landslides, which have been blamed on reckless building. Eight years after an earthquake and tsunami caused almost 230,000 deaths and in which Aceh was the hardest hit among other areas in the Indian Ocean, another quake has startled residents. The Jakarta Post’s Nani Afrida filed the following reports.
Escape building: An ambulance is parked in front of an “escape building” during a tsunami drill in October 2009 in Ulee Lhee, Banda Aceh. Despite several drills, only a few dozen residents rushed to these buildings in the chaos during the latest earthquake on April 11. Antara/Irwansyah Putra
It was 3:38 p.m. when an 8.5-magnitude earthquake hit Aceh on April 11. However, no one was in the control room of the Disaster Information Management unit of the Aceh Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBA) to monitor it live, as everybody had run for their lives.
Usually five minutes after each earthquake, the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) sends reports to the agency’s disaster information unit near the earthquake’s epicenter that also has predictions on whether a tsunami is likely. But, naturally, no one saw the message.
Without such information, Nasir Nurdin, the chairman of the Indonesian Community Radio Networks (RAPI) in Aceh, finally decided to help panicked people as far as he could. Roads were immediately in gridlock as everyone dashed for higher ground.
The tsunami’s sirens sounded 30 minutes after the earthquake. In 2004, the tsunami that devastated Aceh arrived 15 minutes after the quakes.
“It was a scary situation. If a tsunami had really hit Aceh [on April 11], we would all have died, just like in 2004. There was no certain information from the government and we felt like we had no leader,” Nasir told The Jakarta Post.
With his walkie-talkie, Nasir and other radio volunteers were trying to report minute-by-minute updates while trying to keep people calm.
“After the earthquake, having a walkie-talkie has become a trend in Aceh. Locals believe this gadget will help them better than a GSM mobile phone,” Nasir said with a laugh.
The 9.3-magnitude earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that hit western Sumatra on Dec. 26, 2004, affected many other countries including Thailand, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, with an estimated total death toll of 227,898.
In the aftermath, the government, working with several donors, conducted drills in various areas to prepare residents for disasters and early warning systems were installed. But the afternoon of April 11 in Banda Aceh clearly showed that, at the very least, the necessary coordination and maintenance of those systems were inadequate, adding to the panic.
Nasir said the standard operational procedures were not in place.
“We faced many serious problems here. No one received information from the BMKG, the electricity was switched off and the governor and the head of the [Aceh Disaster Mitigation Agency] were arguing about whether they should have used the tsunami sirens to alert people,” Nasir said.
The chairman of Aceh’s Disaster Mitigation Agency, Ahmadi Syam, had said he had taken the initiative to sound the sirens after receiving information from the meteorology body. He said that high-ranking officials had refused to use sirens in order to avoid panic. “I decided to use the sirens, so people would not think we didn’t care about them,” Ahmadi said.
April 11 was the test case for the measures taken after the December 2004 tragedy, but the question remains on the preparedness of Aceh and several other areas in the event of another disaster. The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) revealed that the preparedness of people and local governments in facing a tsunami is still weak and needs further improvement.
BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told the Post recently that the agency coordinates with 37 ministries and institutions. The agency was established in 2008 to replace the National Disaster Management Coordinating Board, based on the 2007 law on disaster management.
In the local area, BNPB coordinates with 33 provincial disaster mitigation agencies (BPBD) and their 388 regency offices.
However, coordination has become a serious issue for the agency — mainly because the assignment of new staff is the authority of the local government. “Once they know the issue better, they are suddenly promoted to other places or reach retirement,” Sutopo said.
“Regional autonomy and the main role of political parties in local administrations has weakened the alertness of local governments in facing disasters.”
Despite the chaos of April 11, Sutopo said public awareness about disaster prevention was better than it was in 2004, though he added it had yet to be part of the culture. Awareness is best in smaller disaster-prone areas, such as Aceh’s northernmost regency of Simeuleu.
Here, elders have long recited songs and stories of calamities. Folklore tells of residents, mainly fishermen, dying in the huge earthquake and tsunami of 1907. In 2004, residents witnessing the tall waves remembered their elders’ stories and immediately fled for the hills. Of the estimated 150,000 of those who died or went missing in Aceh, only nine died occurred on the island.
Earthquakes and tsunamis are only two of 13 different categories of natural disasters that the country is frequently exposed to. Indonesia has active volcanoes, floods, droughts and landslides. Among them, only the timing of a tsunami can be predicted — yet this means only about 20 minutes after they are created as precisely predicting a preceding earthquake is not yet possible.
“No one can predict an earthquake, but people can be better prepared for evacuations in the face of volcano eruptions, because the process involved is usually longer,” said Suharjono, the seismologist in charge of BMKG’s earthquake and tsunami division.
In a bid to save as many lives as possible, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered the national disaster agencies to come up with a disaster master plan several days after April 11.
As part of the master plan, the President also approved additional infrastructure for early warning systems, such as sirens, tsunami buoys, tidal wave equipment and global positioning systems.
The master plan, to be completed later this month, focuses on the construction of evacuation shelters and the procurement or improvement of earthquake-detection tools. The plan would be just one step further in disaster mitigation. Living in a disaster-prone country requires people and the government to “learn from the past and work together as a system,” Sutopo said.