Emergency planning saves lives in Indonesia today

Indonesia, April 11, 2012

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    Office workers evacuated outside their building in Medan, Northern Sumatra, after the first earthquake hit Indonesia today. Photo: Reuters/Y.T Haryono, courtesy the Thomson Reuters Foundation – AlertNet Photo: rtr30l52_comp.jpg

Updated April 13, 2012: Given the scale of the earthquakes that hit on Wednesday, the damage and impact on lives in West Sumatra's Aceh province has been minimal.

According to scientists, this was one of the biggest slide earthquakes on record — at the fault line, the plates on the ocean floor moved horizontally a massive 70 feet. Because this was a horizontal movement, however, there was no tsunami and only minimal structural damage. It became apparent by Wednesday night and early Thursday morning that a big humanitarian response would likely be unnecessary.

We mobilized former team members on the ground in Banda Aceh and Meulaboh cities to assess the situation. While they saw large populations camped out on higher ground that first night, people have since returned home. The government has reported five deaths from heart attacks caused by shock and six injured in the quake, but they are not requesting any international support. As far as we are aware, there has been no displacement.

Today at 3:38 p.m. local time (1:38 a.m. PST), an 8.6 earthquake hit off the coast of Aceh Province in Sumatra, Indonesia — the same site of the deadly 2004 earthquake that triggered a tsunami killing 230,000 people. While we’ll have a team on the ground tomorrow to carefully assess the needs in the area, reports so far indicate far less damage and no fatalities — thanks in part to emergency preparedness work throughout the country in the eight years since the earlier tragedy.

Immediate action
In the Mercy Corps Jakarta office at the time, I first realized something was going on when multiple phones started ringing and a building buzz of activity filled the air. Several team members started relaying information from our colleagues based in Aceh and throughout West Sumatra, more than 700 miles away. Fortunately, our whole team was accounted for and safe.

Our staff quickly organized and started contacting government officials, other NGOs and the UN; we also closely monitored news feeds and social networks to collect more details and ascertain the early impact of the earthquake. We were in close touch with our colleague agencies to share information and begin coordination in the event an emergency response was necessary.

As is usual when disasters strike, the phone networks immediately jam — and today was no different. We all repeatedly tried phone numbers, sent text messages and tried to get through on instant messenger to our former colleagues, friends and family in the affected areas.

Our Indonesia Response Team was put on standby and plane tickets were booked to Banda Aceh for tomorrow so we can get people on the ground quickly to carry out an assessment and determine needs on the ground.

Better prepared this time
A short while later and after several smaller aftershocks, a second major earthquake hit, measuring 8.2 on the Richter scale. By this time, the whole area was on tsunami alert.

Luckily, unlike eight years ago, one never formed, and the tsunami warning was lifted later in the evening. Initial reports suggest that though there is some structural damage close to the epicenter, in areas like Semeulu Island and the city of Meulaboh, there was no major damage and no reported fatalities.

In contrast to the disaster in 2004, as soon as the first earthquake was felt today, sirens went off in all major urban centers in Aceh as part of the warning system, and people immediately started moving to higher ground. There were traffic jams and some chaos — the electricity was out — but early reports suggest there was less panic this time.

Helping reduce risk
Following the 2004 tsunami, Mercy Corps moved to invest time and resources into disaster risk reduction and preparedness activities in Sumatra. We’ve worked to educate communities on how to respond in the event of another emergency — just like this.

Specifically, we have helped them identify tsunami zones and escape routes with clear signage and maps. Shelters were built at the end of escape routes to accommodate displaced families, and children in schools were taught what to do when an earthquake hits. And we’ve supported infrastructure rehabilitation to ensure communities are more protected and resilient in case of flooding.

So far we don't have enough information to determine if there was significant damage from the earthquakes that hit this afternoon. But it is reassuring that people are now more aware of the danger they face and know how to mitigate the risk. We hope that as a result, the impact of today’s event and that of future earthquakes will be greatly reduced.