The Indonesian government and a host of relief agencies scrambled to pull supplies together Wednesday before making the 12-hour journey from Sumatra to the Mentawai Islands, where more than 150 people were killed after a powerful earthquake sparked a tsunami that struck the remote region on Monday.
Two days after the 7.7-magnitude quake struck, little aid has reached the islands due to rough seas and stormy weather. The few reports trickling in have come mainly from survivors, and a few surf charters that were out on the water when the tsunami hit.
But it's surfer-supported groups, such as Last Mile Operations and SurfAid International, that have begun to provide assistance and search for the scores of villagers that remain missing.
“We will be poking in and out of small bays looking for villages in need,” says Matt George, the director of Last Mile Operations, an organization that specializes in providing aid during coastal disasters. George has chartered a boat and was loading up to leave Wednesday night along with 10 other relief workers and as many as 100 rescue buckets.
First responders: surfers
The D’Bora surf charter stationed off the southern end of Pagai island, the area closest to the epicenter, has been sending back reports of the damage. Last Mile Operations has used that information to put together buckets complete with fishing hooks, sarongs, blankets, tarps, rope, and small shovels.
“Anything that can get them under shelter and give them the ability to be clean and give them the opportunity to gather their own food from the jungle and the sea,” says George.
The response has been rapid, he explains, because those on the ground know what to anticipate from these kinds of disasters. George, who also assisted aid efforts during the 2004 tsunami that devastated the Indian Ocean region, says the surf charter business has a lot of experience working with relief organizations.
“The surfers here are being called up on the most because we know the islands like the back of our hands; we know the villages, we know the waters, we’re qualified captains and know how to navigate the reefs,” he says.
Access to remote islands a key challenge
An official with the national disaster management agency said the central government has sent ships with aid and volunteers and that the local government has set up communication posts and some emergency shelters on the island of Sikakap. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is returning from a summit in Vietnam and plans to visit the devastated region in western Indonesia tomorrow.
So far officials say the main problem has been access. Bad weather and rough seas have put rescuers on standby. As victims wait, nearly 16 tons of government-organized relief including tents, food, and clothing are on their way. Smaller nongovernmental organizations are also pooling their resources.
The Indonesian Red Cross and international aid group World Vision were both sending contingents to Padang to begin gathering supplies, and more than a dozen doctors have been dispatched to the islands.
The Mentawai cluster comprises 70 islands off the west coast of Sumatra. It sits near a highly stressed subduction zone that has been the cause of several deadly earthquakes in recent years. A rupture in the fault line off northern Sumatra sparked the quake and subsequent tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people across the Indian Ocean in 2004.
Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency has so far committed $100,000 to the relief effort. It is having a better time providing aid to victims of a volcanic explosion that took place late Monday night on Java, Indonesia's most populous island, that has killed at least 30 people.
The eruption of Mount Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano, came less than 24 hours after reports of the tsunami. Scientists had warned that an eruption was eminent, and local disaster management agencies had already gone into action in anticipation.