Indonesia still learning to cope with quakes

The government and aid workers are applying lessons from the 2004 tsunami to Saturday's quake.

As the earthquake struck in the predawn light last Saturday, Suripto could only think of one thing as he looked out over the crashing waves and dark-sand beach: a tsunami.

At 5:30 a.m., Suripto, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, was preparing chilled coconut juice for tourists. "I learned [from TV] that you have to watch the waves to see if they recede, he says. "I was ready to run - then nothing happened. Then I started helping my community."

Like Suripto, aid workers and government agencies are taking their experiences from the 2004 tsunami and applying those lessons to Indonesia's latest calamity, the May 27 earthquake on the island of Java. But disaster management experts here say that these lessons need to be formalized soon into laws and institutions before the next big disaster hits, whether it's the eruption of nearby Mt. Merapi or a wider outbreak of avian influenza.

Officially, some 6,234 people have died and more then 30,000 were injured in last week's quake. International relief has been pouring in, but for many of the 647,000 displaced by the quake help isn't arriving quickly enough.

Many quake victims say they've initially had to depend on the most ancient of disaster relief systems: friends and family. Standing near the rubble of her parents home in the worst-afflicted area of Bantul, Sri Yuniarti, a twenty-something mother of two, said that the only help in the first days after the quake came from passing volunteers and relatives. "The government still hasn't done anything," she said on Wednesday.

Not waiting for the government

A neatly stacked pile of bricks had been gathered by Raharja, a soybean-cake seller and trader who was combing through the wreckage of his house. "May as well start rebuilding," he says. "I can use these," he adds, pointing to some bricks. Raharja says friends had arrived to help him stack bricks and bring food under a system known as Gotong-Royong, or village self-help. "Gotong Royong's much more reliable than the government," he says. "But it's not enough."

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono seemed to agree, appointing Maj. Gen. Bambang Darmono to head the earthquake recovery. Soon afterwards, General Bambang said the national disaster management agency, known as Bakornas, would "play a supporting role."

Defending the government against criticisms from the media and aid workers that help was moving too slowly, Mr. Yudhoyono said provincial authorities were equipped to deal with the disaster.

But Indonesia's leading vulcanologists and earthquake specialists say the Yogyakarta earthquake has helped to spell out the need for a powerful national institution to deal with natural disasters.

"We haven't fully learned from the tsunami," says Eko Teguh Paripurno, a disaster management specialist with a Yogjakarta University. He says that despite Yogyakarta's previous experience with earthquakes people were "still building houses that looked good on the outside, but were weak and inflexible." Currently, says Mr. Eko, the national disaster management agency Bakornas lacks the ability to research, predict, and prepare for disasters. "It's in reactive mode."

Eko was part of a team who had been lobbying Indonesia's parliament to pass a disaster management bill. Those involved in drafting the bill say that it falls in line with global practices. Protection from natural disasters would be enshrined as a right and the bill would recognize a legal role for nongovernment actors.

Competing views of the disaster agency

But the parliament is at odds with Yudhuyono's administration over the scope of Bakornas. Parliamentarians claim that excessive powers over procurement and spending could lead to mismanagement and corruption of resources intended for disaster victims. To counter this, many have called for an institution independent of the government to be set up.

In turn, government officials involved in disaster management say that excessive monitoring and controls could prevent the agency from acting swiftly and that an independent agency could be estranged from the institutions it is supposed to be coordinating.

I Wayan Senggara, a natural disaster researcher with the Bandung Institute of Technology says that Bakornas is "very [legally] weak"and that the government needs to tighten building regulations and implement public awareness campaigns about earthquake procedures.

Mr. Wayan says that parliament in recent years had been more preoccupied with legislation relating to the national financial and economic crisis. "They were distracted, they were focused on other things."

"[The slow development of disaster laws and institutions] is the price we have to pay for democracy," said one veteran Indonesian vulcanologist who requested anonymity. "It's a process we have to go through."

How to help

The following are among the aid agencies accepting contributions for those affected by the earthquake in Indonesia. Contact the individual group for information on how to send donations.

International Rescue Committee
PO Box 5058
Hagerstown, MD 21741-9874
877-REFUGEE or 733-8433
www.theIRC.org

American Red Cross
International Response Fund
P.O. Box 37243
Washington, D.C. 20013
800-HELP-NOW
www.redcross.org

MAP International
P.O. Box 215000
Brunswick, GA 31521
800-225-8550
www.map.org

CARE
151 Ellis St. NE
Atlanta, GA 30303
800-521-CARE
www.care.org

Plan USA
Asia Disaster
155 Plan Way
Warwick, RI 02886
800-556-7918
www.planusa.org

Catholic Relief Services
209 West Fayette St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
800-HELP-CRS
www.catholicrelief.org

World Vision
P.O. Box 70288
Tacoma, WA 98481-0288
800-56-CHILD
www.worldvision.org

Source: Associated Press, staff

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