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Lessons from Indonesia quake

At 5:02 p.m. On Friday, Sept. 28, a massive earthquake struck Indonesia’s Lombok Island, hitting the island nation’s central Sulawesi province. The earthquake was centered 17 miles northeast of Donggala, Central Sulawesi and it triggered a tsunami from the nearby Pacific Ocean. Shortly afterward, strong waves as high as 18 feet crashed ashore, destroying buildings, smashing vehicles and killing hundreds of people who had little time to escape.

The official death toll, mostly in Palu, rose to 1,948 this week and nearly 2,000 bodies have been recovered. There are no exact figures of how many people are missing, but it could be as high as 5,000, according to the Indonesia’s national disaster agency. As hope of finding more survivors diminish by the day, Indonesia’s National Mitigation Disaster Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said many more people could be buried, especially in Palu neighborhoods, where more than 3,000 homes were damaged or sucked into deep mud when the earthquake caused loose soil to liquefy.

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With reports of smell of death still strong in the air, Nugroho said that efforts to retrieve decomposed bodies in deep, soft mud were getting tougher and that some people may have fled or been rescued and evacuated. More than 8,000 either injured or vulnerable residents have been flown or shipped out of Palu, while others could have left by land.

With search operations ending this week, Indonesia, which sits along the world’s most tectonically active region, and its 260 million people that are vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions is no stranger to earthquakes. It  lost 150,000 citizens in Banda Aceh when the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami hit in 2004. Hundreds more died in disasters in Java and the Mentawai islands in 2006 and 2010.

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Experts have attributed the high casualty toll to Indonesia’s lack of advanced systems for tsunami detection and warning. There is urgent need for humanitarian and emergency relief supplies in Palu, including hygiene supplies and kits for families and children. Immediate needs are for food, shelter, nutrition, child protection, water and sanitation.

A detailed needs assessment requirement is needed in order to assist in coordinating response but basic necessities that are still urgently needed to help the victims include fuel, drinking water, medical personnel, medicines and field hospitals, tents, blankets, stretchers, water tanks, food, lamps, generator sets, emergency kitchens, body bags, shrouds and baby food. This makes disaster risk planning particularly essential, including through the preparation and maintenance of earthquake-resistant buildings and infrastructure and warning systems.

The goal should be to make sure that civilians, as well as officials, understand warning signs, know how to act and – critically – have practised doing so, until reacting to a disaster seems as routine as looking out for traffic when they cross the street. Though of limited effectiveness, seismographs, global positioning system devices and tide gauges should be used by government to detect disasters such as earthquakes, sensors on the ocean bottom that can detect extremely small pressure changes.

Such data could be relayed via satellite and analyzed, and an alert is issued if required. There should also be public awareness campaigns on natural disasters, and government should ensure our building codes have earthquake-resisting standards.

Foreign governments and international organisations should give a helping hand through aid, donations, volunteer work and humanitarian assistance.

Our country, Nigeria and most of the African continent is not sitting on continental plates that make it prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, but we have natural disasters of our own. The commonest ones are traffic accidents, flooding, fire, building collapse and windstorms. Even in these ones which are small fry compared to earthquakes and tsunami, we are quite often found wanting. Authorities here find it difficult to invest in emergency equipment and stores in anticipation of disaster, when they have trouble coping with daily existence. Still, we urge authorities at all levels to prepare for such eventualities the way we invest billions in the armed forces even though we hope that they will never be used in a war.

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