Indonesia’s double disaster exposes earthquake lessons not learned

Search teams look for victims in the earthquake and liquefaction affected Balaroa neighbourhood in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

PALU, Indonesia (Reuters) – The young man standing atop a mound of gray mud and debris on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, waiting for an excavator he hoped would dig out the bodies of his parents, voiced the exasperation many feel in his earthquake-plagued country.

“This is something that happens all the time in Indonesia. Why aren’t we getting better at handling it?” Bachtiar cried as the machine clanked through the ruins of someone’s kitchen in the city of Palu.

A 7.5-magnitude earthquake on Sept. 28 triggered a tsunami and extensive soil liquefaction, a phenomenon that turns soft soil into a seething mire, killing 2,073 people, according to the latest official estimate. Up to 5,000 more may be missing.

“In every disaster, there’s always a lesson to be learned,” Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the national disaster mitigation agency, said this week.

Nugroho conceded that Indonesia’s preparedness for disasters and capacity to respond still fall woefully short, not least because public funding is so low. He said the country’s disaster response budget is currently 4 trillion rupiah ($262 million) a year, equivalent to 0.002 percent of the state budget.

“We should not forget that there will be many disasters to come. It needs budget,” he said. “We need to learn from Japan as they are consistent in preparation.”

Critics say that, despite improvements at a national level in disaster management since a devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, local authorities often lack know-how and equipment, and so rescue efforts are delayed until the military can reach the area.

Also, a lack of education and safety drills means people don’t know how to protect themselves when an earthquake strikes.

Palu was Indonesia’s second earthquake disaster of 2018. In August, the island of Lombok was rocked by quakes that flattened villages and killed more than 500 people.

It was also only the latest in a string of deadly tsunamis to hit the archipelago in 2005, 2006 and 2010. But none of those compare with the 2004 tsunami that killed some 226,000 people in 13 countries, more than 120,000 of them in Indonesia alone.

Indonesia straddles the southwestern reaches of the Pacific Ring of Fire and is practically defined by the tectonic plates that grind below its lush islands and blue seas.

The archipelago is strung out along a fault line under the Indian Ocean off its west coast. Others run northwards in the Western Pacific, including those under Sulawesi.

Volcanoes that dot the islands have brought fiery destruction and remarkable fertility, but rapid population growth over recent decades means that many more people are now living in hazardous areas.

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