Preparation is empowerment

Indonesia

December 3, 2010

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There was an earthquake on Wednesday afternoon here in Indonesia's tsunami-stricken Mentawai Islands. I’m not sure how big it was, but I was writing a report when all of a sudden the table started shaking. It kept shaking, and I checked to see if maybe somebody’s leg was moving up and down in one of those “I’ve got the wiggles in my feet” kind of a movements that can vibrate tables, or if maybe a dog was moving the table in a quest for food.

Nope.

The earthquake was finished as soon as it started. Once it had finished, people started rushing out of their rooms saying “Did you feel the earthquake?” and checking the online earthquake site to see where it was, its measurement and then sighing with relief that it wasn’t that big.

You could see the fear in their eyes slowly subside. Luckily, it was just another day.

I was growing up in Southern California when a magnitude 7.1 earthquake occurred in San Francisco in 1989. I was nine years old, and living far away from the epicenter, but I can still vividly remember all the news reports saying that an even bigger quake was imminent — and to be prepared.

At elementary school it seemed like we had a drill about once a month (perhaps I over-exaggerate but they seemed really frequent). We’d be in the middle of ‘free-time’ or math, and all of a sudden the teacher would start yelling “EARTHQUAKE DRILL!” and we’d all duck and cover.

I think that was one of the most stressful years of my childhood. I can still remember waking up in terror from a recurring nightmare about “The Big One."

Recurring nightmares aside, because of all those drills, my skin is a bit thicker and I’m better prepared when it comes to earthquakes. I know what to do, and I look for safe places wherever I go. Living in New Zealand, and now in Indonesia, It’s become part of my nature.

There are some really great programs that Mercy Corps have established here in Indonesia. One of them is the Disaster Risk Reduction program in West Sumatra. I found out about it at the Lessons Learned conference in September, and what I didn’t know is that the program started a year before the earthquake, so the community was able to use their learning when it did happen.

I’ve met some really lovely people while I’ve been in Indonesia, and I especially have a soft spot for the kids here. They are so beautiful and vibrant, with their boisterous “HELLO MISTER!” that they shout out from any distance when they see a bule (Bahasa Indonesia for "foreigner," pronounced "boo-lay”).

I think a lot about these kids and how, realistically, we won’t stay in touch as their lives unfold and they no longer think about their long lost “Missus Sara.” But my wish for them is that they get the learning to help empower them to make good decisions in their lives...when it comes to preparing for and coping with disasters, and everything else.