On October 5th, 2009 I traveled to Padang, the capital of West Sumatra and the focal point of relief efforts for the victims of the recent earthquakes. The first earthquake hit at 5:16 pm on September 30, 2009. We set out on what proved to be a nine-hour drive for a mere 340-kilometer trip.
The road to Padang winds through the mountains to the height of Bukit Tinggi (High Hill), one of the larger cities in West Sumatra. From Bukit Tinggi it is 90 km downhill to Padang which is on the coast. My traveling companions were Chip Hill, Paul Liu and Pak Andre. Chip is an American who teaches at an English Language school in Pekanbaru. The school is owned by Pak Andre who also runs a volunteer social organization called Nitra Sejati, which focuses on responding to the needs of people in rural villages. Paul is the pastor of the International Christian Fellowship in Pekanbaru. Through Pak Andre, Chip had established a grass roots contact in Padang in the form of Dian Insani, an organization sectioned by the government to do “Earthquake Training” in West Sumatra. Ironically, the four-member board of Dian Insani was meeting about earthquake training on the day of the 7.6 magnitude earthquake. Their meeting had finished at 5:00 pm and the earthquake leveled the building at 5:16. The meeting was at the office of Ibu Shirley, one of the Board members. Ibu Shirley and her parents lived above the office. Ibu Shirley had left the building to pick up last minute groceries for dinner. When she returned, she had lost her home, her business and her parents in the tragic collapse of the building.
This is one of many horrific stories of the earthquake. On the positive side, the larger community of West Sumatra and Indonesia has pulled together to help each other get through the disaster. We stayed in the house of Pak Michael, one of the three leaders of the Dian Insani organization. He and his family were hosting about 20 people in their home the night we arrived.
People slept in tents, and on floors. This will be their lifestyle for months to come. We four slept on the floor in the front room, while six others were in the living room. We used three of the bedrolls we had brought with us. The second night Paul and I stayed at Michael’s house but Chip, Andre and ten of Andre’s guys with Nitra Sejati stayed at a house they were calling the center (rented as an office for Dian Insani in Padang). The downside was that when Paul and I rolled in after 11 pm, all the bedrolls were in use because they thought Paul and I would be at the center. Fortunately they had a blanket for us to put on the floor and I got a pillow that night, so I was even more comfortable than the first night on the bedroll.
About half of the houses in that neighborhood, including Pak Michael’s, had no water as a result of the earthquake. The community came together, sharing water with neighbors. Our first night there, after our nine-hour drive from Pekanbaru to Padang, they had lots of drinking water in plastic cups, but their bak mandi (a water storage tank in the bathroom) was empty. That meant there was no water to wash or even to flush the ‘squat on the floor’ toilet. The next morning we toted buckets of water from the neighbor to fill Pak Michael’s bak mandi. That was a small but heart-warming act of service for the four of us. OK, I admit it was not without some element of self-serving motivation.
There are aid workers from over 20 countries in West Sumatra, most in the capital city of Padang itself. Padang was full of white faces. The city is surprisingly approaching normalcy already. There was no chaos or looting. People were going about there business. Of course the business of many people was taking care of food and shelter needs and cleaning up the city. The focus was no longer on rescuing survivors from the rubble of destruction. It was too late for that. Although an estimated 180,000 buildings were flattened or severely damaged by the quake, I was surprised how much of the city was untouched. There would be complete blocks with no damage. On other streets one house would be flattened and the next perfectly intact. Some of this was the result of poor construction practices. They have a cheap mortar available to use in place of cement. For many, the luxury of cement was not affordable.
Some large business and government buildings withstood the quake while only a few were leveled. On Tuesday night, Paul and I were trying to locate a young girl from Pekanbaru. We went to a youth shelter near the site of the Ambacang Hotel. There we saw the most awful sight of our time in Padang. The Ambacang (ahm-bah-chong) has been the hotel of choice in Padang. It was completely leveled by the earthquake. Another large hotel next to the Ambacang was still standing and from a distance looked normal, but it had been closed due to structural damage. At 11:00 pm floodlights allowed the men and machinery to dig through the rubble to retrieve buried bodies. A crowd of people stood and stared. I don’t know if they were friends and relatives of the missing. I hope so. Schools had not yet reopened. This is too bad because school routines would be therapeutic for the children at this time. The government was beginning to provide tents for use as temporary classrooms. We passed one school that had significant damage to a large gazebo in front of the classroom buildings. The classroom buildings appeared to be intact, it was impossible to say for sure. Early estimates claimed that over 500 schools in the area were damaged, and that 241 schools had to be rebuilt.
Restaurants and stores that did not suffer damage are open for business. We ate mostly at roadside restaurants and outdoor lunch places that hardly require electricity. However, a group of Chinese Indonesians from Jakarta, who had been delivering supplies with us on Tuesday, took us to a real restaurant near the Pizza Hut. First they insisted that we eat durian at a roadside stand. Durian is a fruit that is notorious for its odor. Hotels do not allow durian on the premises. Pak Lim showed us how to eat durian Asian style. After the proprietor cut open the spiky shell of the large fruit (about the size of an American football) we peeled out the fruit and slurped it down. Then Lim showed us how to fill the shell with water and mix in the fruit residue to create a drink that supposedly neutralizes the smell. We weren’t sure about the authenticity of this theory, but we did as we were instructed.
The Dian Insani group will continue to serve the community and will help us identify ways in which we as a community can help. They are currently identifying specific villages in Pariaman that will benefit from the kind of supplies that we can provide. For example, they will find a home for the remaining blankets that we left with them. We left some blankets with neighborhood health clinics in Pariaman.
Pariaman was hardest hit by the earthquake. This largely rural district suffered landslides that buried complete villages. These landslides are in remote areas that have only been accessible by helicopter. Dian Insani is holding meetings with many other small volunteer groups to coordinate their aid efforts, with a focus on Pariaman. The first suggestion that Michael made for our school was that a clothing drive would be very beneficial. The Duri Campus had already started a clothing drive, and at Rumbai we were just waiting to learn what would be identified as most needed. At this point volunteer groups are focusing on commodities such as rice, milk, tents, tarps, medical supplies, clothes, diapers, and other basic food and shelter items.
The efforts to help the victims of the earthquake will continue for years to come.