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Steve Sutton inspects the remains of a house on Simeulue smashed by the 2004 tsunami
Steve Sutton inspects the remains of a house on Simeulue smashed by the 2004 tsunami.
Release date
30 May 2017
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Steve Sutton
Project Leader and PhD Student

Making disaster preparation normal: what can we learn from Indonesia?

By Steve Sutton. This article first appeared in Issue Two 2017 of Fire Australia.

Wouldn’t it be good if we could make disaster preparation a normal part of Australian life? If in the next fire, flood or cyclone season, we didn’t have to worry about all the homes and people at risk, because we had done all we could to prepare for it? Think about the savings. Think about the reduced anxiety for homeowners, emergency service volunteers and workers.

Researchers in the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and its predecessor, the Bushfire CRC—as well as in other disaster institutions around the world—have been asking this question for some time now.

A picture is now emerging of why people don’t prepare – but this picture is derived from studies of calamities. Although this information helps, of course; but to use a metaphor, it’s really a bit like psychologists studying the mentally ill to understand what a healthy mind looks like. Studying episodes of psychosis really only informs us about what the unhealthy mind is. What we really want to know is what makes a normal, healthy mind.

If we apply that metaphor to disaster research, we need to find examples of people who prepare for disasters in the normal course of their lives—we need studies of communities of everyday people who are prepared for disasters.

It turns out such communities exist. One such place is Simeulue (sim-oo-loo) Island, or Pulau Simeulue, which lies between Sumatra and the Sumatran subduction zone in the Indian Ocean. On 26 December 2004, while hundreds of thousands died as the tsunami struck, only five people from a population of 80,000 died on Simeulue. The story is told that the then president, Susilo Bambang Yudiyono, assumed everyone on Simeulue would be dead, because it was the place closest to the earthquake’s epicentre. When a military reconnaissance flight saw thousands of people waving from the hills, he is said to have exclaimed “Impossible!”

Last year, I visited Simeulue to research how the community managed to achieve this amazing statistic. The first thing I noticed about Simeulue had nothing to do with disasters. What struck me was its stunning beauty— it’s a classic tropical paradise. Glorious white, sandy beaches with crystal clear water are fringed with groves of coconuts. The view stretches on to rainforested capes. Amiable buffalo graze on dune grasses, or wallow in creeks leading to the ocean. Small outrigger fishing boats glide out to reefs rich in fish. Only a short distance inland, steep rainforest ridges leap up from the coastal plain and macaques stare out from the thick jungle.

There are few foreigners, or ‘bule’. They are mostly keen surfers attracted to the glorious breaks along the west coast where small surf lodges have been set up. Of course, just after the tsunami, there were a lot more foreigners. A huge program of aid and reconstruction took place, with Australia having a prominent role rebuilding villages that were destroyed by a wave that in places was “as high as the coconut trees”. Homes, businesses, mosques and indeed whole villages were destroyed – but hardly any people were killed.

The second thing you notice is that the people of Simeulue are not preparing for the end of the world—they are a normal Indonesian community. Their health statistics reflect those of the rest of Aceh province, with slightly lower life expectancy than the Indonesian average. They don’t seem overly safety conscious; the men smoke ‘kreteks’ (a type of cigarette) in large numbers and construction workers wear only rudimentary personal protective equipment. Traffic is dominated by motorbikes, with many drivers helmetless, and many carrying three or more unhelmeted passengers, including children. They do not seem obsessed with maintaining tsunami evacuation routes, either—some I saw were overgrown with tangles of lianas.

Previous studies of the 2004 tsunami revealed a strong history of local or indigenous knowledge about tsunamis that derives from a similar event in 1907. People learn from a young age that “when the earth shakes, run to the hills”. But this only partially explains the survival of most of the population.

One issue, for example, is that the towns on the mainland coast devastated by the 2004 tsunami were also hit by a tsunami in1907. They also have local knowledge and Indigenous traditions. So how come they didn’t have a similar story? There is also the issue of taking action. While knowledge about what to do might exist, experience shows that not everyone acts upon it. In our own pluralist society, individuals may dispute the validity of knowledge for a range of reasons, often relating to their own set of values. One response might be to jump in the car and drive away from the coast, as happened in Samoa in 2009. Others might adopt the all-too-common ‘wait and see’ approach. Not on Simeulue; everyone dropped what they were doing on a quiet Sunday morning and ran.

Finally, there is the interesting point that even the locals themselves attribute their success to a range of factors. “Allah” is a common response, with people nodding and pointing skyward. Others believe it to be due to seismic uplift, which raised some parts of the island by nearly one metre. This is not likely to be the case, because the areas subject to uplift also had some of the biggest impacts from the tsunami— but some people still express that view.

The different explanations for success really seem to underline how ‘normal’ the people of Simeulue are. The interesting point is that while they may say a range of things in relation to how they avoided the tsunami, when the time comes, they all acted in the same way. In fact, a large earthquake in the middle of the night in March 2005, which devastated nearby Nias Island, saw the Simeulueans running to the hills again.

Somehow, the people of Simeulue have clearly embedded something that is a very effective protection from tsunami into their everyday lives. In fact, there are at least three somethings.

First, they understand earthquakes. Living near the tectonic plate subduction zone, they have a relatively high number of earthquakes and seem to understand which ones are likely to induce a tsunami. Second, they have established a universal understanding of how to respond when they estimate a tsunami is likely. An effective universal plan of action seems too good to be true in disaster risk-reduction circles—but here it is, alive and well on Simeulue. Third, despite all the theorising about the low casualty rate afterwards, they all acted on the knowledge during the event. All 80,000 of them. As if it were normal.

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Index of Editions

Issue Two of Fire Australia for 2017 features information about a weather phenomena called a mountain wave that produces severe fire behaviour, an analysis of flood fatalities in Australia, what we can learn about disaster preparation from Indonesia, and leadership for our emergency service volunteers.
Issue One of Fire Australia for 2017 features firestorms, disaster resilience, fire preparation in Bangladesh and the International Day for Disaster Reduction.
PhD progress, human factors and decision-making capabilities, asbestos risk and the role of pharmacies in disasters are showcased in the Spring 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine.
The Winter 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine highlights important research including reducing hazard impacts with smarter spending, fire modelling and wind behaviour as well as the rewarding experience of PhD student placements in the sector.
Mitigating disasters: how damage from floods, fires and storms can be prevented through careful planning and investment; a new approach to flood forecasting using remote sensing data; and case studies from the CRC are highlighting paths to integrate bushfire science into government policy and planning.
Developing a smartphone app to measure fuels for bushfire, 2015's International Day for Disaster Reduction, a case study on the Be Ready Warrandyte initiative and a look at what could happen if Adelaide was hit by a large earthquake.
Community resilience in the remote north, how NSW RFS used research to change their approach to engagement around bushfire survival planning, and case studies on CRC research impact.
How extreme water levels could impact Australia's coasts and what can be done to mitigate the risks, the gulf in earthquake risk reduction, and a look at the milestone UN Sendai conference on risk reduction.
The vital elements of operational fire modelling and retrofitting older homes for severe wind events.
How a rural fire brigade used national research findings on community safety, comparing disasters today to those of 100 years ago, and preparing children for disasters can have positive impacts on entire communities.