Earthquake preparation pays off for Indonesian village

Indonesian village Mangopo had no fatalities. Other nearby villages without evacuation training did.

Dylan Martinez/Reuters
A man leaves his earthquake-destroyed house in a fishing village on the outskirts of Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia' on Thursday.

International aid is flowing into quake-hit areas of Sumatra, Indonesia, as US troops join the effort to provide food, shelter, and medical care after last week's 7.6-magnitude earthquake.

In the worst-hit city of Padang, around 100,000 houses were severely damaged, while scores of public buildings collapsed, exposing shoddy construction. Indonesia's state news agency reported that the economic damage was estimated at over $200 million.

At the same time, stories are emerging of communities that responded to the quake with pre-arranged evacuation drills and were spared the worst. The same communities quickly sized up the damage and prepared for aid delivery and reconstruction, using the same disaster risk training.

Vulnerable cities should prepare

It has been a bad few weeks for natural disasters in Asia. Typhoon Melor left a trail of destruction Thursday in central Japan and two undersea quakes triggered a tsunami scare for Vanuatu, though to the relief of residents only small waves hit the island.

Aid workers and experts on mitigating natural disasters say these events underline the need for rigorous preparation, including early warning systems and evacuation drills for areas at risk of tsunamis. While relief aid for stricken populations is essential, so too is investment in preparing communities for future disasters, particularly in urban quake zones.

The fact that so many buildings collapsed in Padang, which caused most of the deaths, is an indicator of poor preparation by a highly vulnerable city, says Sanny Jegillos, a regional coordinator for crisis prevention for the UN Development Programme in Bangkok.

"Padang is in close proximity to a major quake generator. It's not hindsight. It was a known risk," he says.

Amid complaints about the construction of schools, hotels and hospitals, the governor of West Sumatra pledged to fight for a new law that will require all new buildings to be built to survive a 8-magnitude quake, Reuters reported.

No deaths in prepared village

In the village of Mangopo, north of Padang, around 90 percent of the 346 houses were damaged by the Sept. 30 quake. But nobody died. Instead, community leaders organized a swift evacuation to a designated site said Malka Older, director of programs in Indonesia for Mercy Corps, a US humanitarian agency which had helped train Mangopo and other at-risk villages.

"Everyone reacted very quickly because of the training and that's why no one died in that village," she says.

Other nearby villages that weren't part of the program suffered fatalities, she said. The training was partly a response to the risk of a tsunami, which didn't materialize this time. Each coastal village partners with an inland village for support in the event of a tsunami evacuation.

In the aftermath, villagers returned to their broken houses and began cleaning up. Households formed groups to distribute aid as it began to reach them from Padang, a one-and-a-half hour drive away.

Ms. Older said the mood in Mangopo was mostly upbeat, even though many were homeless. Residents are anxious to rebuild their houses, which are mostly bungalows of bricks and concrete without steel rebar.

If they are to withstand another earthquake, though, better construction is necessary, she said. The same goes for buildings in Padang.

"You can really tell where the construction was good and where it wasn't. The construction standards are not there. The accountability is not there," she says.

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