Teaching disaster preparedness in paradise

Indonesia, July 4, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Travis Penn for Mercy Corps  </span>
    “If he has a wallet, don’t take it,” the instructor joked as he showed local grade school children how to check for pulse and injuries after a disaster. Photo: Travis Penn for Mercy Corps

We are in Padang, Indonesia, a city of about two million people located midway up the west coast of the island of Sumatra. It is an oil port and a surfer's paradise. It is also extremely vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis: a major fault line runs along the country's west coast.

There have already been terrible earthquakes here, including the one that hit 2009. The empty hulks of massive buildings, dark and overgrown with weeds are scattered throughout the city. They serve as constant reminders of the immense power and destruction that these natural disasters can cause.

Yesterday we drove to a small village named Air Manis, which means “sweet water” in the local language. Just to keep English speakers confused, “Air” means ‘Water” around here. The village is located along a flat stretch of land next to a lovely beach, with a steep hill rising directly behind it. Unfortunately, this combination makes it dangerously vulnerable to tsunamis.

We came to Air Manis to observe a disaster readiness class that was being taught to fourth and fifth graders at the local elementary school, as part of a Mercy Corps program supported by ECHO (the European Commission's Humanitarian aid and Civil Protection Directorate General). The classes include first aid, emergency preparedness and knowledge of the area's evacuation routes.

When we entered the classroom, there was a young boy laying on the floor pretending to be injured while a disaster expert modeled the correct ways in how to respond. The classroom had about 20 girls and boys sitting at their desks watching the demonstration. We joined them at some empty desks.

First, the instructor showed the kids how to check for a pulse to see if the victim was alive. (Later when the kids re-enacted the same scenario — one little boy just gave his victim a hard pinch which made us all laugh.) Then the instructor checked the victim for injuries, including bone breakage or bleeding.

The instructor told the children “If he has a wallet, don’t take it.” Again, this made us all laugh. It was good to find some humor in these lessons since there isn’t a question of if they have to use this knowledge — just when.