“You've got to see this,” said Erynn Carter —who heads up Mercy Corps’ projects in West Sumatra — yesterday when I arrived in Padang. “Our new disaster billboards went up last night, and there was a huge traffic jam this morning at rush hour because so many people stopped to look at them!”
Sure enough, when we pulled up by one of the huge billboards on a beachside thoroughfare in the small city, there was a group of people stood looking at it and discussing with their friends — even a pair on a motorbike had pulled over to get a good look. The billboards, it turns out, are part of a big programme to help people in Padang to prepare for tsunamis and earthquakes, setting out a map of the local area with big red lines marking the areas most at risk and showing where to head for safety.
The people of Padang and West Sumatra live with the constant threat of earthquakes and tsunamis, so it’s easy to see why there’s quite so much interest in the map, and the advice on preparing for these kinds of disasters that's posted alongside it. Last September, a massive earthquake hit the city, killing more than 1,000 people and affecting the lives of 1.25 million more. Mercy Corps has been working hard over the last year to not only repair the damage caused, but also to help local people prepare for future disasters. It’s a big job, as Padang is right on the seafront (with little protection from tsunamis) and most homes aren’t built to withstand the shock of an earthquake.
Some areas are particularly at risk — like Batang Arau, a ramshackle community that sits right on the edge of a canal and under Padang’s famous (and with each earthquake, increasingly precarious) Siti Nurbaya Bridge. Mercy Corps has helped the community to set up a Disaster Preparedness Team to prepare and educate local people on how reducing the risks from future disasters.
“Mercy Corps set up this group, and trained us so we know how to help our community in a disaster,” said Lelen Nkaranal, a 41-year-old mother of three and the leader of the Batang Arau Disaster Preparedness Team. “They helped us to assess the risks for everyone living here, so we can be more prepared, and reduce the risks in earthquakes or tsunamis.
“Before, if an earthquake happened, no-one knew what to do or what the risks were," Lelen continued. "We are glad that Mercy Corps helped us because now, if something happens, everybody here knows if they are living in a high risk or low risk area, what to do and where to go. Other areas and organisations are seeing what we’re doing and want to help, so I’m very proud to be a part of it.
“We’re ready for disasters now, whenever they happen.”