CENTRAL SULAWESI, INDONESIA -- Twenty-eight-year-old Astuti Dewi Adiningtyas was inside a family spa and reflexology building in Palu when a massive 7.5-magnitude of earthquake struck Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, at 6:03pm Central Indonesia Time, Sept 28.
At first, the employee of Palu-based statistics agency heard a rumbling sound like the noise of a dump truck unloading hundreds of stones.
After that, the ground began to shake heavily. Several minutes later, the electricity in Palu was shut down. Darkness surrounded her. She hurriedly stood up from the massage chair but kept falling because of the powerful movement.
“It was so scary. The sound. I never heard one like that before. I tried to get out of the reflexology building by crawling,” she said in Palu. “I bumped into sharp object inside the building. I did not realize I had [a] wound until saw my foot bleeding.”
Before the 7.5-magnitude of earthquake hit the province, several earthquakes had happened in Central Sulawesi. According to the data from U.S. Geological Survey, the first earthquake on that day happened at 6:59:59 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) or 2:59:59 am Central Indonesia Time with a 6.1-magnitude. The earthquake was followed by series of earthquakes with a magnitude ranging from 4.7 to 5.4. Three hours after the first earthquake happened, USGS released a tsunami warning with the possibility of landslides and liquefaction.
The Indonesian local government, under the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics (BMKG) agency, announced a tsunami warning on its website and Twitter account (@infoBMKG) five minutes after the 7.5-magnitude earthquake occurred.
However, thirty minutes after the earthquake happened, the agency revoked the warning. The head of Palu’s geophysics station, Cahyo Nugroho, said the decision to revoke the tsunami warning was based on the observation of the tide gauge in Mamuju, West Sulawesi. Indonesia depends only on tidal gauges measurements and sirens to detect tsunamis after its twenty-two ocean buoys installed in 2008 were damaged.
“We recorded the rise of water level only reached 0.6 centimeters in Mamuju,” Nugroho said. “That is why we decided to end the tsunami warning.”
At that time, a tsunami was already hitting several points in Central Sulawesi, including Banawa, Towaeli and Sirenja in Donggala Regency and Palu with a height varied from 2.16 meters to 11.3 meters or 37 feet, recorded in Tondo village, east Palu.
The longest wavelength was 468.4 meters or almost a third of a mile.
When the disaster hit, Palu was having its annual culture festival of Palu Nomoni 2018 along the Talise Beach. The festival was attended by sultans from all over Indonesia who stayed at one of the premium hotels near the beach. The sultans were evacuated to a safer place before the 7.5-magnitude of earthquake struck. Meanwhile, most civilians were not aware of the tsunami threat. Amateur video showed people along the beach, who came to enjoy the festival, frantically running to escape the tsunami.
In Petobo neighborhood, Palu, forty-year-old Isman was walking towards his parents’ house after buying light bulbs in a small store.
Isman, with brown colored skin and a height considered tall for a typical Indonesian man, could hear the sound of a man reciting the prayer call from inside a mosque nearby the house.
As he stood in front of his parents’ house, the earth below him was starting to shake.
“When the ground trembled the second time, it was shaking so violently. The streets began to split into two. From where I stood, I could see the mud soil was swirling and rising so high it swept all my neighbors’ houses and even the coconut trees. The movement was so fast like a blender machine,” he recalled.” At that time, I asked my family and parents to leave the house and run.”
Despite the fact they were running together to escape the wave of liquid soil behind them, everyone had a different destiny.
Among six of the family members, Isman was the only one to survive the catastrophe.
His wife, Fatmawati, stepped on a thin asphalt slab and fell into a hole. When the ground continued to move, she was crushed inside and disappeared in front of Isman. His oldest daughter, Nur Ainun, fell into a fissure when she tried to jump over a cracked street. The road closed and swallowed her due to the movement of the soil.
“My youngest daughter, Riski Akila, I even did not know where she was. People said she fell into a hole like her mother," he said. “After the earth’s movement stopped, I searched for their bodies but it’s impossible. All victims were covered in ‘Pece’ (mud). You could only see their eyes. Until now, I could not find their bodies.”
Meanwhile, in Balaroa neighbor, thirty-two-year-old Nurhayati saved her life from the liquefaction because she and her family decided to stay in the open field in front of her house when the 7.5-magnitude of earthquake happened instead of running.
“I heard roaring sound. Tanah tasorong (The earth was moving). It cracked open and closed again. People screamed for help, but we could not do anything,” she said.
Dian Novendi Muaram, medical staff at the Amartapura hospital in Palu, said she did not know anything about the tsunami and liquefactions until she saw people started to come to the hospital with wet and torn clothes around 8:00pm.
“I knew it’s tsunami from the victims. Tsunami siren was not activated,” she said.
Nugroho from the geophysics station said the local government did not know about the tsunami approaching Central Sulawesi province due to a power outage and damaged phone lines. Nugroho said this condition prevented the activation of the tsunami siren.
“The protocol for the tsunami siren is that the local government will tell the local disaster mitigation agency to turn on the siren. However, at that time, we could not communicate because of the power outage.”
The unfolding disaster in Central Sulawesi killed 4,547 people and destroyed 100,405 houses, 185 public health facilities, 1,299 public schools and 692 religious buildings including mosques, churches, shrines and monasteries. The human toll of this lack of readiness has been compounded by a thus far inadequate disaster response on the ground, including weak infrastructure.
Weak infrastructure meant that people were not warned from the tsunami, the hazardous risk following a 7.5-magnitude of earthquake and the risk of living in an area with a high potency for liquefactions, where the shaking of the ground turns the soil into an almost liquid state, swallowing whatever is on it.
In 2012, the Indonesian geological agency published research on the potency of liquefaction in Palu, Central Sulawesi. Based on that research, Petobo neighbor was categorized as one of the red zone areas with a high-risk of liquefaction. The research suggested the local government pay attention to the settlements built in red zone areas. However, people living in Petobo neighbor did not know any information about the risk of liquefaction in their suburb.
Trinirmalaningrum, the Director of Skala, a mitigation disaster focused non-profit organization, said the finding from the geological agency had been given to the local government in 2012.
“The Governor had received the finding, but we did not see any action from him,” she said. “There was no change related to regulation for establishing new development planning based on the 2012 finding.”
Having concerns about the disaster threat, she and her team consisting researchers from other NGOs, universities and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences made an expedition to observe the path of Palu-Koro fault in Central Sulawesi in 2017.
“At that time, we predicted that tsunami and the big magnitude earthquake would happen in 2018," she said. “We told the local government, but they did not take our research seriously.”
Amien Widodo, the head of disaster study at Sepuluh Nopember Institute of Technology, said the research effort to know the threat of disasters in provinces had been done by research institutes like the Geological Agency, the Indonesian Institute of Science, the Department of Higher Education at the Ministry of Education, and the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology.
“However, local governments are still focusing on response not prevention. Some think research on disasters can make investors run away,” he said.
Neni Muhidin, an activist from Disaster Literacy, a Palu-based NGO, said the villagers of Donggala’s western coast escaped the tsunami because having local wisdom about earthquakes and tsunamis. Meanwhile, in Palu, people seemed unprepared for the coming of tsunami and liquefactions. The situation in Palu after the tsunami and liquefactions hit the city was chaotic. In the evening, people could be seen running away and screaming in the street, vehicles got jammed in the roads, and the city was in total darkness. The earthquake had temporarily stopped beating, inducing a coma to the city.
After the disaster, Isman and other survivors who lost their houses lived in emergency tents. According to 2019 data released by the Central Sulawesi government, 172,999 survivors live in 400 evacuation points spreading out in Palu and three regencies including Sigi, Donggala, and Parigi Moutung.
The Governor of Central Sulawesi, Longki Djanggola, said the local government prioritized several things during the recovery period, such as the improvement in health, education, and population sectors as well as building temporary and permanent housing.
Survivors would move from emergency tents into temporary houses before occupying permanent houses. The local government is planning to build 1,200 units of temporary housing for families in two years. According to the plan, the aid will go to seven zones in Palu and three other regencies.
A unit of housing consists of 12 rooms, 4 shared bathrooms, 4 separate shared toilets, 1 shared kitchen and 1 shared laundry room. So far, 3,276 rooms have been built in 273 units of the temporary housing. Besides the government, the private sector also participated in providing 3,288 rooms for the survivors.
“We had 6,564 rooms available for survivors. It is still far from our target,” he said during a press conference in January.
Suprihatin, a liquefaction survivor from the suburb of Jono Oge, Sigi Regency, is now living in a temporary housing built by a non-profit organization with her two grown-up daughters and mother.
The temporary housing complex is located in the same suburb recently announced by the local government as a red zone area for liquefaction and earthquakes. It means if another massive earthquake happens, Suprihatin is living in the place most likely to repeat the liquefaction tragedy.
Fifty rooms were built for families. In January, thirty families have filled the slots.
If the rooms built by the government are painted in plain white, her room has soft pastel pink and bright green colors. Clothes, sarongs and towels are hung in the window frames as curtains. The rooms’ walls are made out of plywood while the blue bright zinc is chosen as its roofing.
Suprihatin has lived there since October.
A few days after the liquefaction occurred, she lived in a tent in Sidera, the neighboring village of Jono Oge. Food, drink and clothes were given by the neighboring villagers.
“But my mind went blank all the time. I lost my husband and felt empty. I did not know what to do with my life," she said. “But, my cousin told this temporary housing complex and I applied to the NGO.”
The development of the temporary houses is part of the local government’s efforts in accelerating the recovery during the post disaster period. However, this ambitious plan to provide infrastructure is not enough for restoring the province destroyed by the tsunami, earthquakes and liquefactions.
A secondary disaster is unfolding over time, leaving the devastated areas with limited access to clean water, soaring unemployment and poverty, depressed and disappointed survivors as well as sexual assaults and harassment to women and children.
Four months after disaster, Palu was slowly rebuilding. The first taste of the havoc the earthquake caused the city came in the airport. Wires hung on the ruined ceiling of the building. A banner with “Welcome to the Mutiara Sis Al-Jufrie Airport Palu, I love Indonesia” placed against the outer wall of the airport building.
In the heart of the capital city Palu, vehicles filled the road. Along Talise Beach, where homes and businesses were destroyed by the tsunami, cars, trucks and motorcycles were passing.
It looked like the people of Palu had tried to move on from their trauma and pain from the disaster. Government offices, schools, restaurants and hotels had operated like usual. Laughter could be heard among conversations happening in cafes or restaurants between local people. For tourists who came to Palu, they must be prepared for the high prices on food and hotels.However, sadness began to seep in when visiting the temporary shelters and housing. Frustration roared among survivors about their uncertain future -- dead relatives, no permanent home and joblessness.
A 2018 assessment done by the World Bank revealed the estimated economy loss for the Central Sulawesi disaster was amounted to over $500 million. The number includes the loss calculated from the housing, industry and infrastructure sectors. The province needs years to rebuild its capital city and other regencies before turning back its economy to normal.
Trinirmalaningrum from Skala said the disaster had sent the economy of Central Sulawesi province ten years backward.
The government set up a plan for rebuilding the province by dividing into several phases including emergency, transitions and early recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction. According to 2018 data from the Indonesian Development Planning Agency, the transitions phase in Central Sulawesi is supposed to run for one to three months.
However, the local government decided to extend the transition phase until the end of April this year in a recent press conference. The extended phase has resulted in the unavailability of the livelihood provision for survivors, who lost their jobs.
This situation has a psychological toll to survivors in the emergency tents and temporary houses.
Suprihatin from Jono Oge neighbor in Sigi regency said she felt depressed, especially when thinking about raising children without a husband. However, she began to heal after focusing on selling fried chicken in front of the temporary housing.
“I am lucky because my sister helped me with money, but other single mothers here do not have any finance aid for earning a living,” she said.
Meanwhile, Isman from Petobo neighbor said he wished to work in construction or farming like he used to do before the disaster struck.
“Now, it is impossible,” he said. “The farming land is destroyed, and I could not find any construction jobs.”
Isman tried to survive the days by securing people’s houses near the liquefaction area from robbery. It distracted him from his deep sadness at the death of all of his family members.
Another survivor of tsunami, Irvan, started to go fishing using a boat that had been wrecked by the tsunami.
“Even though my boat is heavily torn, it is okay,” he said. “I can still use it to return to the sea, catch fish and sell it in the market. This is better than staying at the tents doing nothing.”
Research from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences states the disaster in Central Sulawesi has impacted mostly farmers, fishermen and street food sellers along the beaches as the farming land and boats were destroyed due to liquefaction and tsunami.
Muh Masykur M SP, the Central Sulawesi’s Council member of the special committee on post disaster recovery and supervisory said the local government had not created any livelihood for survivors.
“Some survivors are working in the construction field to help demolishing damaged buildings, but, this program is assigned by humanitarian sponsors,” he said. “And the majority of the survivors, farmers as well as women, have not got any help for livelihood.”
Central Sulawesi’s Secretary Hidayat Lamakarate said the government, under the Social Affairs Ministry, would support survivors by providing money amounted to Rp. 10,000 or 70 US cents per day for two months per person. The money is not enough for daily living that survivors like Isman and Irvan becomes more desperate to find jobs as soon as possible.
“For others, financial aids are mostly supported by the NGO both local and international,” he said.
Not only the absence of livelihood that the survivors need to deal after the disaster, but also the difficult lives in the temporary shelters. Even though the government is rebuilding the province by providing temporary houses, many people criticized its effectiveness.
Masykur of the Central Sulawesi’s Council criticized the development of temporary housing, saying the focus of the government was more to projects and business.“All of the temporary houses have problems since the beginning of the project, starting from ill-suited locations, problematic constructions to other problems related to electricity, clean water, or toilets.”
Ista Nur Masyithat, an activist who is also a liquefaction survivor from the Petobo neighborhood, said she received complaints on the availability of clean water from survivors in the temporary houses.
“Some places have no water during weekends, “she said. “Do they think people don’t use water in weekends?”
The government should consider using pipes than water tanks when providing clean water to the people living in the emergency tents and temporary houses, Masyithat said.
“The cost for water tanks is way more expensive than pipes. Not only that, drivers bringing the supply of the clean water sometimes are not available during weekends causing the supply to stop,” she said. “We already told the local government to consider it, but they prefer to use water tanks because it is related of continuing projects.”
The ongoing problems in the temporary houses have caused survivors to live in their destroyed houses located in the red zone areas. Some others chose to stay in their relatives’ houses. The extremely hot temperature in the temporary tents, small space in the temporary housing and the unawareness of the danger living in the red zone areas are among reasons why survivors do not want to stay in the temporary shelters.
The director for the Celebes Institute, Adriany Badrah, said some of the temporary houses were built in areas prone to flooding, like in the suburb of Lende, the sub-district of Sirenja, Donggala Regency. Ten units of housing which would serve 120 families got inundated even before the development was completed.
Another problem related to the provision of temporary houses includes the safety in the temporary houses and in the emergency tents. Dewi Rana Amir, the Director of the Study Circle for Women, a non-profit organization focusing on women and children, said cases related to harassment to women began to emerge. For example, Central Sulawesi women’s empowerment and child protection agency received 39 sexual harassment and assault reports in March.
The reports included rape, attempted rape, unwanted physical touching, being peeped and recorded using camera phone as well as domestic violence and attempt of sex trafficking in the shelters.
These things happened, Amir said, because of factors like the lack of security in the evacuation points, including easily broken keys and inadequate design of the tents which can prompt sexual harassment.
“That is why we created 12 women friendly tents to provide further assistance for the most vulnerable group of survivors like women, children, old people and special needs, “ she said, adding the tents were located in several areas including Petobo, Balaroa, Pantoloan Ova, Duyu Gawalise in Palu, Jono Oge Pombewe, Sibalaya, Bulubete and Lolu in Sigi Regency, Gunung Bale, Sirenja Sipi, Loli Pesua and Wombu Kalonggo in Donggala Regency. Not only that, her volunteers’ teams also helped the survivors by providing work skills training.
“Some women should face the harsh reality where their roles in the household are shifting because the death of their husbands, “she said. “Now, they become the head of the households and have to take care their children by themselves.”
Besides women, children and especially teenagers who experience trauma need extra support. However, not many psychosocial supports are available for them.
Masyithat who previously worked in the Indonesian Red Cross and provided psychosocial support to children and teenager had met a teenager who refused to talk in an emergency tent.
“Her uncle said the teenager saw with her own eyes how her mother and sister were swept away by the tsunami, “she said. Masyithat tried to monitor the kid from her relatives.
“I cannot force her to talk if she doesn’t want to. So, I give her books and space to make her feel more comfortable before starting a conversation,” she said, adding that handling children and teenagers with trauma needed different approaches. Teenagers usually recovered more slowly than children since they had to think about their life and responsibilities.
Badrah from the Celebes Institute, who provides counseling and education for children survivors, criticized the government for its post disaster education response, which stresses on inserting disaster mitigation into the school’s curriculum. She said children needed psychosocial support more for healing process.
“What we need to focus now is how to make students with trauma to recover completely and going back to school without feeling insecure and afraid,” she said. “Some students still scream when they hear thunder or rumbling sound.”
The inadequate support encourages people to help one another.
When the disaster struck Central Sulawesi, several inmates at Palu detention center wanted to check the condition of their families and help victims outside the detention center. Nurdin Lasahido, one of the inmates, talked with the head of the detention center to give fellow inmates a chance to do something.
“I said I would be responsible for other inmates," Lasahido said. “We got the trust to go out and to be volunteers helping the government during the emergency period.”
The inmates helped to distribute logistics like food packages, blankets and clothes to the survivors living in the emergency tents, rebuild mosques and temporary houses in Sigi Regency. After the emergency period ended, Lasahido started to see the need to provide alternative livelihood for the inmates.
“These fellow inmates also have families, wives and children,” Lasahido said. “After they get released, they will need to earn living to raise their families. So, this idea of creating a livestock and poultry learning center came up and we think this livelihood can also be useful for survivors who lost their jobs.”
They created a community of convicts under the name of Bui Squad.
Bui Squad members then appointed Isjal, a convicted murderer, to be the instructor at the learning center. Isjal was sentenced to prison in May 2018 for killing a junior high school student after accusing him of stealing a motorcycle and other electronics.
“What I teach to fellow inmates and survivors is the process of running farm poultry from feeding the chicken, making the organic food and antibiotics for the chicken to selling the chicken to the market," Isjal said. “Currently, we have 20 participants in the learning center, eight of them are inmates.”
Lasahido said they got financial aid to buy the first 300 chicks from Palu public works and housing agency in November last year. In two months, they were ready to sell the chicken. Palu’s agency of law and human rights allowed these inmates to go out in the morning, come to the poultry farm in Sigi Regency and get back to the prison in the afternoon.
“We hope this learning center can be developed in another area, too. It is not difficult to do the poultry farm since it does not need much space,” Lasahido said. “All in all, we are proud to be able contributing for society.”
Not only the convicts took part in rebuilding the community. Masyithat decided to become a volunteer to help herself heal from trauma. Along with other survivors, she distributed food to the impacted area like Jono Oge, Balaroa, Petobo and Birobuli neighbors.
Masyithat is one of the liquefaction survivors in Petobo neighborhood. One of her children almost died because being buried under the dirt. Masyithat said her own experience as a survivor was useful to approach other survivors who became willing to share their stories.
The failure to warn people using tsunami warning system is not the first time happened for Indonesia. Several months after the Central Sulawesi disaster, another tsunami hit from the Sunda Straits and sweeping people living in the western coast of Java island. No tsunami warning was announced, causing 429 people died and thousand others injured.
Ahmad Arief, a researcher from the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), said as a developing country, Indonesia could not rely on tools and technology to warn people about tsunami.
“Tsunamis in Indonesia hit the land very fast. Counting solely on the tsunami early warning system will not be effective to prevent fatalities,” he said.” As we can see the fastest tsunami sensor will deliver warning only after five minutes.”
Indonesia installed its first GPS sensor on a tsunami buoy in 2005 following a tragic disaster that hit Aceh province in 2004.
That tsunami caused 283, 100 deaths.
The German government, under the coordination with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, donated this first tsunami buoy, according to the German Indonesia Tsunami Early Warning System website. The buoy cost €45 million Euro or $50 million dollars.
In 2006, the U.S Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration installed another buoy near Sumatra Island. Besides Germany and the U.S, other countries including China, Japan, and France, also participated as sponsors for providing technology and assistance for Indonesia’s Tsunami Early Warning System.
Three years later, Indonesia launched the national system for the TEWS called as Ina-TEWS. According to the United Nations Development Program’s website, the Indonesian government delegated the task of managing the Ina-TEWS to 16 government institutions, including BMKG and the National Disaster Mitigation Agency.
So far, Indonesia has 165 tsunami sensors and 52 tsunami sirens throughout the country.
“However, since its first launching in 2008, this warning system has failed in saving lives and warning people on the upcoming tsunami, “Arief said.
Amien Widodo, the head of disaster study at Sepuluh Nopember Institute of Technology, said all the TEWS tools in Indonesia were donations from foreign countries and were installed in the middle of the sea.
“For example, several of them were installed in western part of Sumatra island, or located 200 to 300 kilometers from the land, and in southern part of Bali and Java islands,” he said. “We are requested to do the maintenance, but we are failing since it requires an enormous amount of money."
Nugroho from the Palu-based Geophysics Station said the local government, under Palu’s Geophysics Station and Palu’s Disaster Mitigation Agency, would install seven tsunami sirens in Central Sulawesi and simplify the siren’s protocol as an alternative way for communications.
“If we still use the old protocol, it will be very complicated to warn people before the tsunami strikes since it comes very fast,” he said.
He added the government currently were developing a database of land-slide based tsunami since all the tsunami early warning system were built on earthquakes.
Despite the failure of government’s technology, Adiningtyas, who survived from the earthquake, still counts on the meteorology agency’s website to follow information about disaster. Growing up in a city in Java island, she struggles to adapt working in a city of earthquakes like Palu.
Her families, who are living in Java island, concerned the safety of their eldest daughter. Adiningtyas admitted she was still uneasy when sleeping. She could jump out of bed and run when hearing clamorous sound.
However, she also relied getting information from the society.
“I even don’t know that the street where I am living right now is a dangerous area if a friend does not tell me,” she said.
Muhidin from Disaster Literacy said the government needed to consider the disaster research released by research institute into their regional spatial planning and the disaster risk reduction aspect. People also need to be informed on the history of their environment as well as on the data of the regional landscape, including vegetation, soil data, coastal lines and cliffs.
Muhidin said most people in Palu did not have enough knowledge about the disaster mitigation, the geographical information and the threat of disasters in their surroundings.
“They don’t know anything about liquefaction nor that they are living in the red zone area of liquefaction passed by the active Palu-Koro fault lines,” she said. “In the future, the local government needs to be more transparent and informative to people about the risk threatening their neighborhoods.”