Impressions of a Quake’s Aftermath

A Catholic Relief Services worker in Indonesia


We arrive at one village, Palak Janu, where residents crowd around, curious about the foreigners who have come back after visiting earlier. A 42-year-old man says that his house is still standing, but is too heavily damaged to enter. “There are many big cracks, and most parts of the walls have fallen down,” he says.

On a hut wall in Palak Janu is a list of those dead and wounded from the quake. There are three names in the deceased column: a mother and her children, ages five and two.

The villagers wait in the sweaty heat as we unload the tarp truck and check their names off a list. This area of Indonesia is matrilineal; the women are the ones who own the property. They carry away the heavy tarps balanced gracefully on their heads. “I salvaged the sheet metal from my house’s roof, and that will make walls,” says a mother of four. “I’ll use this tarp as the roof.”

After a long drive back to the city, I have to get a cab to find a cell phone voucher store, so my phone will work. At least one such store is open, lit up by a generator’s power. I see newspapers with the latest headline: The government has made official what has been tacit for days, and called off the search for survivors.

Returning to the compound, I start getting out of the taxi. One sneaker is on the ground when suddenly the cab jerks forward half a foot, dragging me awkwardly. “Hey,” I tell the driver pointlessly, not knowing Bahasa, “I’m still here!” He gives me a strange sheepish look. I get out and pay him.

Five minutes later at the compound, a colleague says, “We just had a little earthquake. Did you feel it?”

Day Five

“Hang in there,” my mom writes in email. “Except for the bugs, latrines, and lack of water/ electricity/mattresses, I wish I were with you.”

Preparing for another day in the villages, the aid workers compare the hours of sleep we’ve had. Five seems to be the norm right now, an improvement from the weekend, when we got two or three per night. I peer at odd squarish welts on my arm from mosquitoes. Shouldn’t the welts be round? In the quake zone, everything is off-kilter.

Some German colleagues talk about how they got a hotel room. “The hotel people told us it had no window, but of course we didn’t care,” a girl laughs. “Then we got to the room.” The room had a hole, but no window — the window was a casualty of the quake.

We drive to new areas and see one of the worst hit places so far: a village in a region called Alung. We meet Anis, 38, and her three kids; they’ve been sleeping in their yard for a week as her husband saws apart old furniture to build walls for a temporary shelter. “The first night we just slept under the rambutan trees,” Anis says, gesturing to them. Her 14-year-old son Edo has just gotten chicken pox, “and there’s no medical treatment.” Nearby, a cheerfully painted sign tilts near a collapsed kindergarten. No one got hurt, but the 60 students have been idle since the quake. The teacher is hoping to get two large tents so she can reopen the school.

Surrounded by the debris that was their belongings, a family sits on flattened cardboard, eating rice from bowls. The CRS questionnaire about destroyed property evokes some laughs. “Do I have a dining room table? Of course! Here it is!” says the father, grinning broadly as he gestures towards the cardboard.

Day Six

More of us are leaving the compound at night and finding grim, but mattress-inclusive, accommodations. Some German colleagues talk about how they got a hotel room. “The hotel people told us it had no window, but of course we didn’t care,” a girl laughs. “Then we got to the room.” The room had a hole, but no window — the window was a casualty of the quake.

More shipments are coming in, which means more negotiations with the airport and other aid groups — the latter to make sure we don’t duplicate items in one village and leave another one out.

More villagers are building small shelters in their yards — it’s impressive what they can do with salvaged wood and metal sheeting. For those who can’t, tents are in the CRS-Caritas pipeline, along with many more aid items. I’m learning more about quake-resistant reconstruction than I ever knew existed; my email box is full of documents with lines like, “To avoid nails pulling out under extreme earthquake loads, column ends will be nailed through, bent over and hammered flat.”

Media interest has died down here, so I’m to be sent elsewhere, specifically, to Andhra Pradesh in South India, where floods have displaced millions. This Indonesian relief effort will go on for months; new CRS and Caritas staffers are showing up every day.

Siska and her family are still camping on the floor of the diocesan building, and thousands of people in villages will be in temporary homes for a long time to come. Even people with standing homes are in danger from a trickle of pebbles that could bring the whole place down. Unstable, unpredictable, wearing… a quake zone is a wild world. There’s a lot of good happening now, but there’s still a lot of bad out there.

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