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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.

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

Wouldn’t it be good if we could make disaster preparation a normal part of Australian life? What if next fire/flood/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 reduction in anxiety for homeowners or emergency service volunteers and workers. Research by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, its predecessor the Bushfire CRC, and other disaster institutions around the world, have been asking this question for some time now. 

A picture is emerging of why people don’t prepare – derived from lots of studies of calamities. This all helps of course, but to use a metaphor, it is like psychologists studying crazy people in order to understand what a healthy mind looks like. It’s understandable, crazy people are a lot more interesting than ‘normal’ people. In fact, ‘normal’ is almost synonymous with ‘boring’ – it is no accident that the news isn’t full of stories of ‘normal’ things. But of course when you are trying to understand something like the human mind, studying psychosis may not really inform you about what the mind is – only what it is like when it goes bung! What we really want to know is what makes a normal, healthy mind. We need a picture of health if you like, not just a silhouette.

If you apply that metaphor to disaster research, you need to find examples of people who prepare for disasters in the normal course of their lives. Again, not extremists like ‘doomsday preppers’; those folk are actually pretty interesting, but to most of us they also seem a little crazy. What we need if we are to make disaster preparation a normal part of Australian life are studies of communities of ‘normal’ people who are prepared for disasters?

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

I recently visited Simeulue for the first time to begin a program research examine how they managed to achieve this amazing statistic. The first thing you notice about Simeulue has nothing to do with disasters. What strikes you is that it is stunningly beautiful. 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 crazy. They do indeed seem quite ‘normal’ compared to other Indonesians. To an outsider like me they look like their cousins on the mainland. And this is supported by the fact that many, or their parents at least, have migrated from elsewhere in Indonesia.

Their health statistics reflect those of the rest of Aceh province, with slightly lower life expectancy.  They don’t seem overly safety conscious; the men smoke ‘kreteks’ in large numbers, construction workers wear only rudimentary PPE, traffic is dominated by motorbikes with many of the drivers helmetless. And many of the motorbikes will have three or more unhelmeted passengers, including children. Neither do they seem obsessed with maintaining tsunami evacuation routes either; some I saw were overgrown tangles of lianas.

Previous studies of the 2004 tsunami pointed out that there is a strong history of local or indigenous knowledge about tsunami 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 event were also hit by 1907 tsunami. They also have local knowledge and indigenous traditions, so how come they didn’t have a similar story? 

And what about the issue of transmission of the story of tsunami preparation. How do you keep a story going for 100 years? Keeping it ‘straight’ and spreading it to everyone. Is there anywhere in the west that maintains disaster preparation knowledge from before WWI (ok – maybe Holland).

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 value set. 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 with their eyes and the fingers. Others believe it to be due to seismic uplift which raised some parts of the island nearly 1m. This is not likely to be the case as those areas subject to uplift also had some of the biggest impacts from the tsunami, but people none-the-less express that view.

A bay on the west coast of Simeulue where seismic uplift has pushed the shore out 100m or so.
A bay on the west coast of Simeulue where seismic uplift has pushed the shore out 100m or so.

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

What is clear is that somehow the people of Simeulue have embedded something that is a very effective protection from tsunami into their everyday lives. In fact, it is 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 tsunami.

Second they manage to establish 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, they act on the knowledge. Despite the fact that they may theorise about the low casualty rate after the event, during the event they all took the appropriate action. All 80,000 of them. As if it were normal.

Buffalo wallow near the beach on Pulau Simeulue
Buffalo wallow near the beach on Pulau Simeulue

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