For Indonesia earthquake relief, true test comes in remote areas

Villagers on the Indonesian island of Sumatra have received little aid since last week's earthquake. Some residents are stepping in to cook food and collect donations for survivors.

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, schools and marketplaces in the ravaged capital of Padang have begun reopening following last Wednesday's earthquake, suggesting that the city is returning to a semblance of normal life.

But far-flung areas north the city, constituting a million people, have barely been reached by outside aid, international aid organizations report, warning that the true test of relief has just begun. Thousands of people, meanwhile, are believed to be buried under rubble, with the United Nations listing the death toll at 1,100.

"You have populations there that are getting pretty desperate," says Sonia Khush, a spokesperson for Save the Children in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. "There's a million people in the north, and we're assuming about 70 percent of them were affected. It's really important that we start delivering relief right away."

The village of Sungai Sarik may be typical of the challenges faced in areas to Padang's north. Nearly 85 percent of homes there have been destroyed, according to an assessment by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which has a team of 30 people working on the ground. As survivors huddle in makeshift tents, little relief has made its way there.

"You drive through it, and you see people with their makeshift tents right outside their destroyed homes," says Lauren Sheahen, of CRS, who visited Sungai Sarik yesterday. "Not a lot of people had been paying attention to it... It's really serious."

Good Samaritans chip in

In parts of Padang where the authorities haven't arrived, citizens are stepping in. Every day on the road to Pariaman, a hard-hit district in the north, four or five women gather to make heaping plates of food for a village of 200, while their husbands collect donations from cars driving by.

"It's been really nice to see how the community has pulled together," says Kate Conradt, a spokesperson for Save the Children in Pariaman.

One aid worker described the motley crew of volunteers helping out in Pariaman.

"The road was choked with a bizarre array of organisations wanting to do good, from a squad of teenagers on mopeds with Dynasty Computers delivering boxes of noodles to the homeless, to members of the Singapore armed forces and the Indonesian 4x4 club," wrote aid worker Patrick Fuller of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in an online journal entry for the BBC.

But for some villages, relief will never arrive. Local authorities in West Sumatra are operating under a bleak calculus, underscoring the task at hand: They will abandon rescue efforts altogether in Padang Pariaman regency, where three villages on a hillside, populated by hundreds, were swallowed in the quake. There is little chance there are any survivors, the officials reason.

"[W]e are prioritizing those with a higher chance of survival," West Sumatra administration spokesman Dede Nuzul Putra told the Jakarta Post from Padang.

For many children, déjà vu

Wednesday's quake carries with it a grim déjà vu for Sumatra's children, according to relief organizations. Untold thousands of children died in the earthquake-triggered tsunami that struck the island and other parts of Indonesia in 2004. Many of those who survived continue to suffer from trauma.

"We have found that children have been quite upset about what happened," says Ms. Khush of Save the Children. "There was a lot of fear that there was going to be a tsunami – because everyone knows what happened the last time there was a really big earthquake in Sumatra."

There are as yet few estimates of how many schools have been destroyed in Sumatra. As assessments are made, local authorities in Pariaman hoped that children would return to school on Thursday, with many classes to be held in 95 tents that Save the Children has shipped to the area.

Still, as rains hamper rescue efforts, and the tally of the dead rises, relief organizations say they the damage from the earthquake is only beginning to come into focus.

"I don't think we know the full extent yet," says Ms. Conradt.

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