Jakarta Globe, Ade Mardiyati | November 04, 2010
On the fateful morning of Dec. 26, 2004, Nurhasimah, also known as Ima, felt an earthquake in Tamiang, a district in eastern Aceh close to North Sumatra. Ima, who moved there to work as a teacher, thought the quake’s epicenter was in the North Sumatra capital, Medan. She had no inkling of the tragedy befalling members of her family in other parts of Aceh.
“Later on, I saw on TV that [the quake’s epicenter was not in Medan], and that a tsunami had struck North Aceh where my father and siblings lived. Then my uncle told me that Banda Aceh, where my grandmother and other relatives lived, had suffered the same fate,” she said.
“I immediately tried to contact them but was unable to get through because communication was already cut off.”
In the evening, she learned that her father and siblings had survived the disaster. But her grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins were missing. Their bodies were never found.
“I felt faint and became sick. I went to the doctor and found out that my blood pressure had dropped to just 120/70,” she said. “I was stressed out and traumatized.”
Ima said that she was familiar with minor earthquakes caused by the rumbling of Mount Seulawah in Aceh, but could never have imagined a disaster the magnitude of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 100,000 people in the province.
“There was never any information or training about disasters or what to do when they happen,” she said.
“Not until the tsunami hit the province and claimed the lives of so many people did the local government start offering such things.”
Since the 2004 disaster, the Acehnese have become more aware and better informed about what to do in the event of another disaster.
Ima said that many families in the province now keep emergency bags ready in their homes, which contain clothes and important documents.
“Just in case something happens, you can just grab it and leave the house,” she said.
While most Indonesians are aware that they live in a country where natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions are a frequent risk, most people not really know what to do when they happen.
Hery Prakoso, who drives a cab in Jakarta for a living, said he was not prepared and would likely be at a loss for what to do if a natural disaster struck the capital.
“All I know is that I would save my wife and son first and take the suitcase that I keep all the important documents in with me,” the 47-year-old said.
“But where to go, I have no idea. Maybe to higher ground, but I’m not sure where that is in Jakarta.”
Andrew Revindo, a 19-year-old university student in Jakarta, shared Hery’s confusion. “I know I should get out of the building if there is an earthquake. But if a tsunami comes, I would have no idea what to do,” he said.
Gagah Prakoso, from the National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas), said that Indonesians were not prepared to deal with emergency situations.
“There needs to be a concerted effort to education people about what to do in the event of a disaster, no matter how small it is,” he said.
He gave the example of what happened in the remote town of Wasior, in West Papua, which was devastated after flash floods and landslides tore through the area on Oct. 4.
At least 161 people have been confirmed dead, another 145 are missing and presumed dead, and thousands more were displaced from their homes.
“All the displaced people living in tents in Wasior did was eat and sleep,” he said.
“They could have been potential resources to help around the shelter and they would have known better because [Wasior] was their home. But they didn’t know what else to do because they had not been briefed on what to do.”
Ima believes that knowing how to read signs from Mother Nature is better than simply reacting to a disaster.
“Like the tsunami in Aceh. It would still have happened, but it probably wouldn’t have claimed as many lives as it did had people known the signs,” she said.
She said that she later heard how when the ocean began retreating at Ulee Lheue Beach in Banda Aceh, people went down to the shore to collect fish, failing to recognize the warning sign for an impending tsunami.
“It was not normal for the ocean to retreat like that. That was a sign of something bad, but no one knew what,” she said. “I guess that if we had been informed earlier on, we wouldn’t have lost so much.”
Fery Manuputty, who lives in Ambon, Maluku, which is surrounded by water, echoed Ima’s sentiment.
“The ability to read the signs [from Mother Nature] and knowing what to do when a natural disaster occurs are very important, especially for people who live in areas that are prone to such things,” he said.
“Earthquakes, although minor, happen frequently in Ambon, so I have learned what to do in case a strong one hits.
“The last big earthquake that was followed by a small tsunami took place in 1988 when Mount Api erupted [on Maluku’s Banda Naira Island], but you never know.”
Fery also pointed out that whenever an earthquake in Ambon took place, residents often got their information from Jakarta-based television stations.
“The local government is obviously not prepared. They have to do better than that given that earthquakes happen frequently in Maluku,” he said.
If one theme emerges, it is that people want the government to do more to make sure that its citizens know how to read the signs and then known what to do when disaster happens.
“I’m sure the government has done [information campaigns before], but it has to do a better job of it and take it more seriously. It needs to convince people that it is important to know these things,” taxi driver Hery said.
University student Andrew also wants a more thorough information campaign. “Information on disasters should not be given only on TV, as the government has mostly done in the past. Not everyone in Indonesia has access to a TV,” he said.
“The Indonesian government should take more action. Go to remote areas, talk to the people and make sure the information is out there for everyone.”
What to Do When Mother Nature Strikes
- Don’t panic. Be aware that some earthquakes are actually foreshocks and a larger earthquake might occur.
- Minimize your movements to a nearby safe place.
- If you are indoors, stay there until the shaking has stopped and you are sure that exiting is safe.
- Drop to the ground, take cover by getting under a sturdy table or other piece of furniture and hold on until the shaking stops.
- If there isn’t a table or desk near you, cover your face and head with your arms and crouch in an inside corner of the building.
- Stay away from glass, windows, outside doors and walls and anything that could fall, such as lighting fixtures or furniture.
- Use a doorway for shelter only if it is in close proximity to you and if you know it is a strongly supported, load-bearing doorway.
- Stay inside until the shaking stops and it is safe to go outside.
- Research has shown that most injuries occur when people inside buildings attempt to move to a different location inside the building or try to leave.
- Be aware that the electricity may go out or the sprinkler systems or fire alarms may turn on.
- Do not use the elevators as they might stop and strand you.
- Stay there. Move away from buildings, streetlights and utility wires.
- The greatest danger exists directly outside buildings, at exits and alongside exterior walls.
- Ground movement during an earthquake is seldom the direct cause of death or injury.
- Most earthquake-related casualties result from collapsing walls, flying glass and falling objects.
If in a moving vehicle:
- Stop as quickly as safety permits and stay in the vehicle.
- Avoid stopping near or under buildings, trees, overpasses and utility wires.
- Proceed cautiously once the earthquake has stopped.
- Avoid roads, bridges or ramps that might have been damaged by the earthquake.
If trapped under debris:
- Do not light a match.
- Do not move about or kick up dust.
- Cover your mouth with a handkerchief or clothing.
- Tap on a pipe or wall so rescuers can locate you.
- Use a whistle if one is available.
- Shout only as a last resort. Shouting can cause you to inhale dangerous amounts of dust.
- An earthquake is a natural tsunami warning.
- If you feel a strong quake, do not stay close to shore.
- If you hear of an earthquake, be aware of the possibility of a tsunami and listen to the radio or television for additional information.
- Remember that an earthquake can trigger killer waves thousands of miles across the ocean many hours after the event generated a tsunami.
- An approaching tsunami is preceded by an unusual fall or rise in the water level.
- If you see the ocean receding unusually rapidly, that’s a good sign that a tsunami may be on its way.
- Go to high ground immediately.
- A tsunami is a series of waves and the first wave may not be the most dangerous.
- The danger from a tsunami can last for several hours after the arrival of the first wave strikes.
- A tsunami wave train may come as a series of surges that are five minutes to an hour apart.
- The cycle may be marked by a repeated retreat and advance of the ocean.
- Stay out of danger until you hear it is safe.
- Use your common sense. If you feel or hear of a strong earthquake do not wait for an official tsunami warning.
- Tell your family and friends to join you in leaving for high ground.
Sources: US Federal Emergency Management Agency Web site, fema.gov, and National Geographic