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Sunday, October 4

Indonesia earthquakes: As an army of international aid workers converges on Padang city, hard-hit villages don't see a single aid worker

Just as we curse lawyers until we need one, we tend to have nothing good to say about reporters until we realize how much we depend on them to be our eyes and ears on the ground. So while the news that two Associated Press reporters bring us is upsetting, I want to start on a positive note by thanking Eric Talmadge and Irwan Firdaus for doing a great job. Their on-the-ground reporting for AP in this case is literal; the team had to walk four miles for 1-1/2 hours to investigate because landslides had cut off the road to a village they sought out.

Their exertions have brought to light that four days after an earthquake struck Indonesia, badly hit villages haven't received a bit of help from the outside world, unless we count packages of instant noodles dropped from a helicopter. Meanwhile so many rescue teams from around the world descended on Padang, the capital city of Indonesia's Western Sumatra province, that gridlock and chaos ensued.

Yet if Willie McMartin, operational director for International Rescue Corps is to be believed, the quakes were not as devastating to Padang as first feared. Willie's disaster team arrived in Padang on Saturday. He told the BBC that there were up to 30 teams like his in Padang and that some medical teams were spending their time "giving sweets to local kids" because the number of injuries was not as bad as had been feared. Willie also told the Beeb:
"The city has not been wiped out. I would say between 80 and 90% of it is still standing. Most of the damage is in shopping precincts and at a hotel and university building."

[...]

He said: "I'm pretty certain that the rescue work will finish today and we'll move into the relief and rebuilding phase to help those that survived."

Mr McMartin said two key roads linking outlying districts had been reopened. There are fears that rescue teams will find more casualties in the isolated villages but Mr McMartin was more optimistic.

He said: "Many people here live in single story homes so generally speaking they have suffered cuts and bruises. Yes, they need help, but so far there haven't been the fatalities we feared that you get from being crushed by concrete."
Yes, well, if you're buried by a landslide, I can see how being crushed by concrete wouldn't be an issue for you. From the AP report, filed about 2:00 AM EDT Sunday
JUMANAK, Indonesia — With no outside help in sight, villagers used their bare hands Sunday to dig out rotting corpses four days after landslides triggered by a huge earthquake obliterated four hamlets in western Indonesia.

Officials said at least 644 people were buried and presumed dead in the hillside villages in Padang Pariaman district on the western coast of Sumatra island. If confirmed it would raise the death toll in Wednesday's 7.6-magnitude earthquake to more than 1,300, with about 3,000 missing.

The extent of the disaster in remote villages was only now becoming clear. So far, aid and rescue efforts have been concentrated in the region's capital, Padang, a city of 900,000 people where several tall buildings collapsed.

But the quake was equally devastating in the hills of Pariaman, where entire hillsides were shaken loose, sending a cascade of mud, rocks and trees through least four villages.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla said there was little hope of finding anyone alive.

"We can be sure that they are dead. So now we are waiting for burials," he told reporters.

Where the villages once stood, there was only mud and broken palm trees. The mountainsides appeared to have been gouged bare by a gigantic backhoe.

The villages "were sucked 30 meters (100 feet) deep into the earth," said Rustam Pakaya, the head of Indonesia's Health Ministry crisis center. "Even the mosque's minaret, taller than 20 meters (65 feet), disappeared."

In Jumanak village, some 200 to 300 wedding guests at a restaurant were buried alive, including the bride, her 15-year-old brother, Iseh, told The Associated Press.

[...]

The adjacent villages of Pulau Aiya, Lubuk Lawe and Limo Koto Timur were also swept away.

[...]

Survivors in the area said no government aid or search teams had arrived, even four days after the quake. Only about 20 local policemen had come with a power shovel and body bags.

"My relatives were all killed, washed away by the landslide," said Dola Jambak, a 48-year-old trader, picking through the rubble of his house. "I lost seven relatives. Now all I can do is wait for the search teams. But they don't come."

The landslides cut off all roads, and the villages were accessible only by foot. An AP team reached Jumanak after walking about four miles (six kilometers) for 1 1/2 hours.

[...]

Aid also had not reached Agam district, which is much closer to Padang.

Laila, a villager in Agam district, said she and hundreds of others had no food, clothes and clean water.

"Our house is gone ... everything is gone," she sobbed.

She said a helicopter dropped some instant noodle packets Saturday. "But we need clean water to cook it," said Laila, who also uses one name. She said the local river had become dirty as people were using it to wash.

According to the National Disaster Management Agency, 83,712 houses, 200 public buildings and 285 schools were destroyed. Another 100,000 buildings and 20 miles (31 kilometers) of road were badly damaged, and five bridges had collapsed.

Meanwhile, hundreds of doctors, nurses, search and rescue experts and cleanup crews arrived Saturday at the Padang airport from around the world with tons of food, tents, medicine, clean water, generators and a field hospital.

But with no electricity, fuel shortages and telecommunication outages, the massive operation was chaotic.

Deliveries came on C-130 cargo planes from the United States, Russia and Australia. Japanese, Swiss, South Korean and Malaysian search and rescue teams scoured the debris. Tens of millions of dollars in donations came from more than a dozen countries to supplement $400 million the Indonesian government said it would spend over the next two months.

The U.N. said there are sufficient fuel stocks in the area for four days, but with the road to a major depot cut off by landslides, gasoline prices had jumped six-fold. [...]
The gridlock in Padang that Eric Talmadge and Irwan Firdaus describe is a common occurrence when aid organizations descend en masse on a disaster area. But as Willie McMartin points out about Padang's residents, "Life is getting back to normal for most people if they haven't lost a loved one. These people are used to such incidents."

Of course they'd be used to such incidents. Indonesia is Earthquake Central; it's located on one of the world's most active fault lines. So one would think that after all these many years and disasters, and given that governments and aid agencies now have access to things like instant internet connections, they'd be able to better coordinate their relief efforts in Indonesia.

Wikipedia's article, 2009 Sumatra earthquakes features a table of countries that have sent aid to Indonesia and a detailed description of the type of aid each country is providing. The descriptions suggest there's no chain of command and that there's considerable redundancy of effort. That's an old story.

Everyone descends on the disaster area and does their own thing. Eventually it gets sorted out. On-site aid workers from different countries coordinate with each other and the local relief agencies, or at least make a stab at doing so, but this can take several days or weeks.

And as you can see from the AP report the sorting-out process can leave hard-hit regions without help in the early days of a disaster, when assistance is most needed.

The AP report also underscores that the arrival of so many aid workers (all of whom need to be housed, fed, and supplied with safe drinking water) places great strain on a disaster region's very limited supplies.

Given that a string of natural disasters has hit various Asian countries during the past month, I hope this galvanizes cash-strapped governments and international aid organizations to better coordinate their relief efforts.

The coordination should include prioritizing tasks based on a country's proximity to a projected disaster region. For example, the Wikipedia table shows that Saudi Arabia and Russia sent search-and-rescue ("sniffer") dogs to Indonesia. Given that every minute counts when trying to find people trapped under rubble, it would make better sense if Malaysia was the country to send sniffer dogs.

If Malaysia doesn't have such dogs, that's the point if countries coordinate responses to disasters. In the case of an earthquake in Indonesia the country closest to the archipelago should train sniffer dogs and have them and their handlers ready for rapid deployment.

The United Nations and other international organizations are always dialing for dollars when a disaster strikes. But disaster survivors can't sleep under money tents, drink money, or eat it.

What the survivors need most in the aftermath of a disaster are rapid response teams that arrive on the ground already coordinated. So, first do better advance planning, which will make cash donations for disaster victims go further.

I will close by mentioning the Associated Press staff writers in Jakarta who helped Eric Talmadge and Irwan Firdaus prepare their report. Thank you to Ali Kotarumalos, Anthony Deutsch, Niniek Karmini and Vijay Joshi.
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