Riding Out the Next Big Wave

by Christina Lin:

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—Everyone has a tsunami story.

The week before the tsunami, Teuku Alvisyahrin returned home to Banda Aceh, the capital city of the Indonesian province of Aceh, for his youngest sister’s wedding. After the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Banda Aceh was devastated and his sister was a newly married widow. Today, Alvisyahrin is the head of the Professional Services Division of the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center (TDMRC). Formed by Syriah Kuala university of Banda Aceh, the TDMRC’s many goals include tsunami prediction, research and development, evacuation planning, and raising community awareness.

The TDMRC is part tsunami prediction center, part research facility, and part refuge. Located at Tsunami Ground Zero, it towers over the flat peninsula on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. All other buildings here were wiped out by the tsunami; a short distance away sits the mass grave memorial.

Scientists track real seismic activity all over Indonesia in the earthquake control center of BMKG, the Indonesian Agency of Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics. (Lin/TYG)

For Alvisyahrin, the research facility is a boon to Indonesia as well as an investment for the global community. “We are currently in our capacity-building phase—our work is unprecedented and an important service to humanity,” he said.

Before the tsunami, seismic data wa collected on an “ad hoc basis,” according to Dr. Fauzi, director of BMKG, the Indonesian Agency of Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics. “We had a small number of earthquake monitoring systems, with data transmitted by broadband but not in real time. It would take hours, days to get the data. We would have to go [to the monitoring station] or have to ask someone to send it.”

Now with the Indonesia Tsunami Early Warning System, or InaTEWS, data is transmitted in real time via satellite. Contributions of hardware, software, and technological expertise from Germany, China, Japan, France, and the united States have made InaTEWS possible.

BMKG houses the Tsunami Warning Center in Jakarta. Huge flat screen computers are clustered on five semicircular desks in the sleek control room. These stations oversee the seismometer stations and GPS, tide gauge, and sea buoy monitoring networks. Eight trained staff members man the control center around the clock in 12-hour shifts. Above the computers, two rows of televisions display all national channels to check that they broadcast warning signals. One wall is devoted to a dynamic map of Indonesia’s realtime seismic activity.

“I can see if there’s an earthquake from my office,” said Rahmat Triyono, head of Earthquake Information at BMKG, sitting across the hallway from the control room. For all earthquakes of magnitude greater than or equal to 7.0 on the Richter scale and less than 70 kilometers deep, a tsunami warning is issued. Fauzi, who like many Indonesians uses just one name, asserted that BMKG’s goal is to predict and issue a warning in five minutes. First, the computers map the epicenter and on-duty officers run the tsunami modeling program, which predicts wave height and speed. Since tsunamis arrive 20 to 30 minutes after an earthquake, people need as much time as possible to flee to higher ground.

More than 1000 miles northwest of Jakarta, the TDMRC can also detect earthquakes and tsunamis, but must wait for approval from either BMKG or the mayor of Banda Aceh to issue a warning. Once a warning is issued, it is broadcast on TV and radio, text messages are sent to everyone in the area, and tsunami sirens wail. People run to higher ground or climb up designated vertical evacuation buildings.

False alarms, siren malfunctions, and communication delays pose problems, but Fauzi is convinced of the system’s value. “Once the system is fully functioning by next year, it will be as accurate as possible. We are confident we will have fewer false warnings.” The facts bear him out: In 2007, two out of 14 predicted events were actual tsunamis. From 2008 to 2010, five out of 11 predicted events were verified tsunamis.

Building Back Better

In a post-tsunami press conference, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang yudhoyono declared, “We will rebuild Aceh and Nias and we will rebuild it better.” As important as they are, improved earthquake detection and tsunami prediction systems still cannot prevent disasters. In Banda Aceh and surrounding areas about 400,000 new homes were built in the four years following the disaster, but at times building quality was sacrificed in the name of speed in order to provide homes for displaced families, according to Eddy Purwanto, the chief operation officer of the Board of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (BRR).

Another large tsunami like the one in 2004 would still wipe away the strongest rebuilt homes funded by the limited aid budget, ensuring the necessity of vertical evacuation building plans. Success of these systems in the face of another disaster will mean more lives spared. Buildings can be rebuilt.

Lessons Learned

With the 2004 tsunami and other disasters on their minds, the Acehnese evacuate to higher ground after any tremor. But in 200 or even 20 years will institutional memory remain as powerful? On Simulue Island, off the coast of Aceh Province, the majority of residents survived the tsunami due to a lesson preserved in oral history. In 1807, a tsunami devastated the island, and the word smong was coined in the local dialect: When the ground shakes and water recedes, the people know to flee to higher ground to escape the giant wave of water to come.  In December 2004, the people heeded the warning of smong; only seven people were killed.

Irina Rafliana, public education coordinator of LIPI’s Community Preparedness Program (COMPRESS), recounted this story. Her job is to translate geological science and government policy into language that local villagers can understand and utilize during natural disasters. Superstition and shortsightedness continue to be major obstacles.

“Some people still believe that earthquakes are caused by a giant turtle underneath the earth, or that the tsunami is caused by the South Sea queen who sends her troops into the rivers to take the land back into the sea,” Rafliana said.

She stressed the need for teaching all of Indonesia’s more than 300 ethnic groups the importance of emergency planning, taking into account each individual culture.

“Science predicts a large earthquake in the next 10 years. The people hear this and think there is an earthquake tomorrow,” Fauzi said. “‘Oh, I’ll take one or two days off to stay home.’ ‘I’ll sleep outside to save the life of my family.’ ‘I’ll send an SMS [text message] to my relatives.’” He thought for a moment, then continued, “you can’t change people that quickly. Evacuation plans take time to develop and you need a quick response from the local government and the people. you need education and infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, Rafliana mentioned that there had been a recent decrease in government funding for LIPI’s disaster education initiatives. She was determined, though, to continue her outreach work, which she believes has real impact. While teaching an emergency workshop in Banda Aceh after the tsunami, she recalled, “A man raised his hand and asked, ‘Why didn’t you come here and teach us before? Then my wife may still be alive today.’ We cannot stop our outreach; we must integrate it into the daily lives of the people.”

Looking Back and Moving Forward

A delicate woven basket hovering above the buildings of Banda Aceh, the Aceh Tsunami Memorial Museum exists to preserve the 2004 tsunami beyond living memory. Less graceful but more powerful is a hodgepodge of photos printed out on paper, tacked up to billboards leaning against three walls of a small, one-room structure. This tsunami memorial sits next to the 2,600-ton power generator ship, the PLTD Apung 1, which was carried two kilometers inland by the wave. These graphic images—of people torn apart in the wreckage, of a child’s sightless eyes—are the most shocking reminder possible. But they cannot be found on Google, and the impermanence of the paper, already crinkled and faded, is a warning of how even memories of great tragedies are worn down with time.

Indonesia’s long-term challenge is to ensure vigilance and to maintain the earthquake and tsunami warning systems, viable evacuation plans, and public education efforts beyond the immediate flurry of action and interest after the 2004 tsunami. As a developing country situated in geological hot water, Indonesia has started and must continue to take the necessary steps to protect its most precious resource: its people.

Christina Lin ’11 is a Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics major in Pierson College. Contact her at christina.lin@yale.edu.