Warning fail in Indonesia
The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami that hit Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, on Sept. 28 has climbed to more than 1,300 and could go higher as rescuers continue searching remote areas.
The 7.5-magnitude earthquake — the deadliest so far this year — hit around 6 p.m. that Friday, followed by a tsunami traveling at 800 kilometers per hour and reaching up to 20 feet (6 meters) as it approached land, sweeping homes and other structures including a mosque on its path.
Questions have been raised in the aftermath, such as the Indonesian government’s failure to raise public awareness on how to respond to natural disasters as well as the lack of a well-maintained and operational warning system that could have saved lives.
Bureaucratic red tape and disagreement among government agencies reportedly delayed funding for the installation of a high-tech tsunami-detection system to replace a prototype that’s been in place after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
That disaster killed 120,000 people in Indonesia alone, and the high death toll was blamed on the lack of an early warning system.
Indonesian officials admitted that none of the 22 buoys installed post-2004 have been operational since 2012. Worse, they took no action despite this knowledge.
And while a tsunami warning was issued by the meteorological and geophysics agency BMKG soon after the earthquake hit last week, it was lifted 34 minutes later because no data was coming in from Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi province, and one of the hardest-hit.
Residents in Donggala, a regency near Palu, said they received no tsunami warning at all.
A smartphone video taken from higher ground in Palu seconds before the tsunami hit land showed there were still people on the coast seemingly unaware of the approaching danger.
The waves would later flatten villages along the shoreline, reducing them to rubble.
As the affected island reeled from the twin disaster, there were reports of lawlessness and looting with desperate victims fighting for food, fuel and other basic necessities.
On Monday, an Indonesian Air Force plane carrying relief supplies was unable to land as thousands of people — many of them trying to flee the city — stormed the Palu airport.
Indonesia’s ordeal serve as eerie reminders of recent disasters that have also hit the Philippines, which has a lot in common with its neighbor.
The countries both lie along the “Ring of Fire” where many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the Pacific Ocean occur. They are also archipelagos that are vulnerable to natural disasters, and such topography makes rescue and relief operations doubly difficult during calamities.
In October 2013, for example, the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that hit Cebu and Bohol destroyed road networks, hampering rescue efforts.
A month later, Supertyphoon “Yolanda” caused catastrophic damage in Leyte and Samar, cutting off communications and practically isolating affected areas from the rest of the world.
This caused panic and chaos among the affected populace, similar to what is happening in Central Sulawesi.
Like Indonesia, the Philippines is also plagued with a bureaucracy that is more reactive than proactive. It usually takes a catastrophe to happen before the government is moved to action, in a country perennially buffeted by natural disasters.
Chief volcanologist Renato Solidum Jr., for one, has warned that not enough is being done to prepare for the “Big One,” a catastrophic earthquake that may hit Manila and its environs.
While tsunamis here are rare, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology has been raising warnings that the country’s fault lines are ripe for a major temblor that could kill tens of thousands if measures are not taken, including relocating residents, updating the building code to conform to safety standards, and requiring that new homes and structures being built are earthquake-resistant.
The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council has spearheaded nationwide earthquake drills to raise awareness and preparedness, but are they making enough impact?
The government needs to ensure that such efforts are backed up by technology and equipment that can provide the public adequate and timely warnings in case of disaster.
As Indonesia’s painful experience shows, a warning system that works — and not merely another layer to the bureaucracy like the proposed Department of Disaster Resilience — could spell the difference in saving lives.
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