Because of many delays, my flight from Jakarta arrived at Padang’s damaged airport at night, less than 30 hours after the devastating 7.6-magnitude earthquake that shook the city. Petrol shortages had made it difficult to find a car, so my colleagues from Mercy Corps’ West Sumatra program picked me up by motorcycle.
As we drove the highway from the airport to the city, I suddenly realized why it seemed so eerie. Except for isolated fluorescent bulbs showing where there were generators, all the lights were out. The houses and shops along the highway loomed in the light of the three-quarter moon. Then, as we got closer to the city, I started to see houses that loomed too far, roofs that had slipped to the ground, corners that had fallen off of walls leaving the interior exposed.
“Three people died there,” said Popo, the Mercy Corps engineer who had picked me up, pointing at an expensive-looking building that had completely collapsed.
We drove on through the city to our office. Every gas station was surrounded by long lines of cars, packs of motorcycles, and even crowds of people, jerry cans in hand, waiting for hours to fill up on gasoline.
Driving up to the Mercy Corps Padang office I heard the roar of a generator. Inside, lit by a few long fluorescent bulbs hooked directly to the power source, staff members from Mercy Corps and Komunitas Siaga Tsunami (Kogami), our local partner, sprawled on couches under white boards where they had written the latest information, gleaned from discussion with the government, the Red Cross and their own assessments. There were at 197 people dead in Padang city alone. Hundreds of houses badly damaged.
Late into the night, the team planned out the schedule for the next three days assessment of the needs for displaced families here in earthquake-devastated Padang.