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Aid workers grapple with infrastructure damage after Sumatra quake

Indonesia, October 1, 2009

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Thin Lei Win

Reuters AlertNet
October, 2009

BANGKOK - Severe damage to infrastructure will be one of the biggest challenge for aid agencies trying to bring relief to the survivors of the Indonesian earthquake, aid agency workers say.

As rescuers and assessment teams on Thursday started reaching Padang, the main city off the coast of West Sumatra which was struck by a massive earthquake, reports that bridges and roads are destroyed in the surrounding districts posed a big logistical challenge.

"The biggest concern right now is how to access the land to the district north of Padang. We hear the bridges are down and the roads are destroyed," MercyCorps' country director Sean Granville-Ross told AlertNet.

"There are a number of people and relief teams trying to get in over land and I haven't heard that they've managed to get in."

"The concern is that petrol stations and fuel stations have all been damaged," he added. "Within a short time there will be a shortage of fuel, and the sewage and water systems in the city have been destroyed."

The 7.6 magnitude earthquake - followed by 6.2 magnitude aftershock - left the city of 900,000 with no power, flattened buildings including hospitals and hotels.

CUT OFF

The quake also badly damaged roads and bridges, cutting off access between Sumatra province and the neighbouring province Bengkulu.

"After an earthquake of this size, we know the immediate needs are going to be getting safe water, food and emergency supplies to the survivors," said said Adjie Fachrurrazi, CARE's Emergency Response Coordinator in Indonesia, who also led the aid agency's emergency response to the Padang earthquake in 2007.

"The question now is: how bad is it? We're hoping for the best, but the information so far is not looking good."

CARE Indonesia emergency teams have been dispatched to Indonesia as part of a joint assessment team with government departments, other aid organisations and U.N. agencies to determine the needs of the survivors.

The quake was felt in countries as far as Malaysia and Singapore, more than 300 kilometres away. Communication lines have only been re-established late Thursday afternoon.

On Thursday morning, another earthquake - this time 6.6 in magnitude - hit a town further inland, and although there has been no report of casualties, it is likely to further rattle residents an area known as the 'Pacific Ring of Fire' for its intense seismic and volcanic activity.

The death toll from the Sumatra quake has been climbing steadily and is expected to rise further in the next few days. Indonesia's Health Minister told reporters on Wednesday the number of dead could be in the thousands while witnesses speak of mosques and hospitals filled with displaced survivors and seeing rescuers pulling people from buildings.

The infrastructure damage - including the airport which closed for six hours due to a collapsed roof - in an already remote region is already proving an obstacle in assessing the extent of the damage and fatalities beyond what media outlets have reported, aid workers said.

HOPE Worldwide, which has sent in 50 tarpaulins as initial support with a disaster relief team, said: "We do not have a clear picture yet. At this moment, everyone is waiting for rapid assessment from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the ground."

POLITICAL SENSITIVITIES

To complicate things further, political sensitivity means Indonesia may not ask for international assistance outright, another aid worker based in Jakarta told AlertNet.

The country's re-elected president, who has just returned from the G20 meeting, told reporters the country could coordinate relief efforts but welcomed help from abroad.

The government has so far pledged 1 billion Indonesian Rupiah (US$103,700) for emergency responses and has sent in teams from neighbouring areas.

Mercy Corps, who said international NGOs are looking to start providing temporary shelter, non-food items, water and food on Friday, is already appealing for contributions.

For aid agencies, the challenges in delivering aid for the Sumatra earthquake add to the struggle of working on four near-simultaneous disasters in the Asia Pacific region, from the carnage in the Philippines and Vietnam from Typhoon Ketsana and an earthquake and subsequent tsunami in the Samoan islands in the Pacific.