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Scale of Indonesian quake hampers aid efforts

Indonesia, October 5, 2009

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Melissa Block

NPR All Things Considered
October, 2009

Listen to this NPR interview Here

Rescue efforts in Indonesia after Wednesday's deadly quake are being hindered by a lack of electricity, and not enough heavy equipment to clear the debris. Malka Older, director of programs with Mercy Corps, says aid groups are facing challenging conditions, but they are bringing in supplies using relief flights.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: It's been more than two days now since a powerful earthquake hit Indonesia. Even as rescue teams continue to pull survivors from the rubble, there are fears that the death toll could climb into the thousands. The rescue effort is hindered by a lack of electricity and not enough heavy equipment to clear the debris.

To talk about the relief effort underway to help survivors, we're joined by Malka Older. She's director of programs with Mercy Corps. And she's in the city of Padang on the island of Sumatra. Ms. Older, can you describe the conditions that you've seen there?

Ms. MALKA OLDER (Director of Programs, Mercy Corps): Sure. What we're seeing here in the cities is a lot of large buildings that have completely collapsed, others that are partially collapsed with large gaping holes in them. The conditions otherwise are difficult. There's no electricity in the city and there's no running water and communications are also pretty soft and pretty difficult to deal with. So we're facing a lot of challenges as we move forward with this relief effort.

BLOCK: And as bad as things are there in Padang, which is a large city, there is a lot of concern about more remote areas that rescue and relief workers just haven't been able to get to yet.

Ms. OLDER: That's right. We've been trying to carry out an assessment in some of the more remote areas to the north and to the south of the city. That what we're seeing there is a lot more family homes, as opposed to these large buildings that have gone in the cities, but smaller family homes that have been partially or completely destroyed. And people that then need to look for ways that they can get shelter during the rainy season, places where they can store their belongings.

We're seeing that services are being cut off. There are shortages of petrol, so transport is very difficult and people are worried about food. They're worried about water. So there are a lot of issues for us to deal with here.

BLOCK: What do you need most right now for the relief effort?

Ms. OLDER: Mostly right now we're looking at transporting things and it's very hard to get a hold of things right now in Padang, so we're trying to move things from the other big cities around Indonesia, Jakarta, Medan.

BLOCK: And airports are open, runways weren't damaged by the earthquake? They can land big planes carrying lots of big equipment?

Ms. OLDER: Yes. The airport is open. The roof of the airport was somewhat damaged and it was closed immediately on the first day. But the runway was not damaged. They have been bringing in large Hercules cargo planes by the army, (unintelligible) some of that heavy stuff that has gotten in.

BLOCK: And specifically what are you trying to bring in on those relief flights? What kind of supplies?

Ms. OLDER: For us, we're looking primarily at ways that we can keep people healthy during times that are difficult like this. So we're looking at things that will make water safe, safe water storage, water treatment. And people in the city, particularly where there's no running water and people don't usually have wells because they do depend on the piped water, they're pretty stuck for what they do in terms of drinking.

And even in the rural areas there's a lot of problems as wells have been damaged. So, trying to keep people drinking clean water, trying to keep people healthy with soap and other sanitation and then also shelter because people are exposed. And it's the rainy season. I can some lightening from the distance now.

BLOCK: You're seeing lightening, you're saying?

Ms. OLDER: Yes.

BLOCK: And how would you describe the government's response there in Indonesia?

Ms. OLDER: The government in Indonesia is certainly very accustomed to natural disasters. This is something, like, our third this month. And they have been doing their best for try and get things moving as quickly as possible, that they've been working with the international community to support our efforts as well as carrying out their own distribution.

They realize that in some areas they lack some of the capacity, for example, the heavy lifting machines. They had to bring some of those in. They have been asking for search and rescue teams, sniffer dogs and some of the technical expertise that they don't have themselves. They've been very willing to work together with people to bring that in.

BLOCK: Malka Older, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. OLDER: Thank you.

BLOCK: Malka Older is director of programs with the group Mercy Corps. She spoke with us from Padang on the Island of Sumatra in Indonesia.