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Disaster preparedness is important everywhere

Indonesia, June 15, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Juan Christie/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Pointing out tsunami evacuation routes on a map of Sungai Pisang, a village in disaster-prone South Padang, Indonesia. Photo: Juan Christie/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Juan Christie/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The beautiful West Sumatran coastline. Photo: Juan Christie/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Juan Christie/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Disaster Preparedness Team members meet with villagers in Sungai Pisang. Photo: Juan Christie/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Juan Christie/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A visual seasonal calendar for Sungai Pisang village, which includes agricultural and fishing seasons, as well as possible times for potential disasters. Photo: Juan Christie/Mercy Corps

I recently traveled to Indonesia to visit some of Mercy Corps’s programs there and flew from Padang, West Sumatra, through Tokyo on my return. Japan is still reeling from the devastation of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the resulting tsunami. Our hearts go out to the Japanese people — their suffering and the rebuilding of their lives has just begun.

The images of the catastrophe from a country so well prepared to deal with earthquakes and tsunamis are shocking. It’s a reminder that even the best construction practices and the placement of sea walls are no match for the power of nature. How then would a city like Padang and its surrounding villages, fare were an earthquake and tsunami of such magnitude to strike this region?

Indonesia sits in a tectonically active region — pressure has been building on a section of the Sunda trench for last two centuries, leading to growing concerns about an impending earthquake. In January of this year, a team of seismologists stated that a high magnitude, tsunami-generating earthquake is imminent and likely to strike off the coast of Sumatra island near the provincial capital of Padang (population close to one million). An earthquake of this magnitude could also cause enormous landslides — the potential for loss of life and property is staggering.

Despite the island’s history of natural disasters and the potential for more in the future, many here employ a traditional, fatalistic attitude to hazards. Past assessments have shown that communities are highly focused on legitimate worries about the possibility of a tsunami, but often feel that the impacts would be “God’s will,” and that they therefore have little role in preparing for it.

Given the overall lack of preparedness and the nature of the seismic threat to this region, Mercy Corps is engaged in several programs throughout West Sumatra to help cities and villages mitigate the impact of these potential disasters. Prepare SumBar is a community-based program supported by ECHO (the European Commission's Humanitarian aid and Civil Protection Directorate General), designed to work in collaboration with local government to increase resiliency and reduce vulnerabilities of the West Sumatran people.

A couple of weeks ago I traveled with local Mercy Corps staff members to a small fishing village in South Padang to visit one of Prepare SumBar’s disaster preparedness programs. The road out of Padang to the village was long and rutted, adding to the sense of isolation there. A beautiful stream, with banana palms dense along its shores, runs down from the hills, through the town and out to the sea. Small, wooden fishing boats line the coastline. The village is scenic but it is easy to see how exposed and vulnerable its citizens are with their houses clustered near the sea, far from outside assistance.

We were in Sungai Pisang to participate in the first meeting to take place between the community and the program’s Disaster Preparedness Team (DPT) members. The DPTs are comprised of community members, local government officials, individuals from vulnerable groups and the private sector. They received training from Mercy Corps on how to conduct vulnerability and impact assessments, co-ordinate with the government, and plan activities and trainings. They also serve as points of contact and first responders in emergencies.

The meeting was well attended. DPT members gave lengthy introductions about the importance of planning for disasters and then presented assessment and evacuation maps of the village. The community members then had time to offer feedback and discuss the information presented which resulted in consensus on some key issues.

Our afternoon ended with an amazing lunch at the home of a retired teacher who revels in community organization and has been one of the driving forces behind Prepare SumBar’s success in his village. He and his family seemed so honored to have a visitor there to witness their meeting and to share a meal in their home but the honor was all mine.

The events in Japan had left me feeling vulnerable to the uncertainty of life and the seeming impossibility of recovery in the wake of such devastation, but witnessing these amazing people as they move from passive acceptance to action gave me hope for their future and inspired me to do the same in my own community.