Tsunami lessons learned


BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Little connects Indonesia’s Aceh province, palm studded and poor, to the sometimes-frosty, first-world prefecture of Tohoku, Japan.

But both are linked by a shared horror: colossal tsunami waves that washed away trees, buildings and people; disasters cruelly erasing life as survivors knew it, calamities attracting the world’s charity and, via live TV, the gaze of millions.

The two crises are marked by grim superlatives. The Indian Ocean quake off Aceh’s coast was the modern world’s strongest, with tectonic shifts as powerful as 23,000 exploding atomic bombs according to the US Geology Survey. Japan’s quake, which may cost its government more than $300 billion, is considered the most expensive.

More from GlobalPost: Disaster recovery in Aceh

Last Dec. 26, Aceh reached the seventh anniversary of its tsunami, and remembered its 160,000 dead. On March 11, one year will have passed since Japan lost more than 19,000 lives to its own tsunami disaster.

What can the two earthquake-prone regions learn from the other’s experience? And what can both teach the world about coping with crises and bracing for future disasters?

Nuclear shudders: Compounding Japan’s tsunami damage was the meltdown drama at Fukushima Daiichi, the now-infamous nuclear power station. Its leaking radiation has polluted seas, tainted Japan’s food supply and forced nations worldwide to reconsider nuclear power.

Indonesia, like Japan, is situated along active faults, where future earthquakes are certain. But the tropical nation is not deterred by Japan’s nuclear woes. Officials signaled to national media in December that plans for their first large-scale nuclear plant remain on course. The initial plant could open as early as 2015.

More from GlobalPost: Fukushima worse than previously thought?

Officials at Jakarta's National Nuclear Energy Agency insist they can safely locate a plant near Java, the world’s most populous island, on the adjacent Bangka-Belitung islands.

Not everyone is convinced. The plans have yet to overcome “strong local resistance,” according to the Jakarta Post, and groups such as Greenpeace vow to fight Indonesia’s nuclear ambitions.

Fading vigilance: Official analyses have flayed Japanese authorities’ poor communication and inadequate response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster — which exposed residents to potential harm for weeks or even months.

In contrast, Japan’s tsunami warning devices appear to have risen to the challenge, according to Jorn Lauterjung, a researcher with German Research Centre for Geosciences. He determined that Japan’s high-end seismometers alerted coastal dwellers just three minutes after an undersea earthquake triggered the tsunami waves. This gave them 15 minutes to run.

But there are signs that Indonesia, despite seven years of post-tsunami planning, remains at risk due to a subpar alert system. Indonesian media reports describe detection buoys plagued by sea-faring vandals, with lagging response times and, in some cases, total malfunction.

In 2008, with Lauterjung on hand, Indonesia’s president debuted an advanced tsunami-warning network to much fanfare. A promotional video, narrated by a Transformer-esque cartoon robot, depicted loud sirens and animated villagers sprinting to safety.

In reality, there are valid reasons to worry that the current system’s shortcomings could offer Indonesians living by the shore too little time to flee.

Giving up: In Japan, already among the world’s most suicidal societies, the rate of people taking their own lives shot up by nearly 20 percent in the months following the tsunami, according to a Japanese government report cited by The Australian. In Miyagi, the worst-hit prefecture, the figures showed suicide increasing by a staggering 40 percent.

Indonesia, unlike Japan, doesn’t monitor suicide rates with precision. Still, in Aceh, which lost nine times as many lives, no major rash of suicides was reported after the tsunami.

Did an Aceh suicide epidemic go undetected? Or did Allah guide them through the darkness? The latter theory is accepted as fact by many Acehnese.

“The Acehnese are strong,” said Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal, deputy mayor of Banda Aceh. “Very few people committed suicide here. This is totally owed to our faith in God.”

Islamic devotion in Aceh appears to have solidified, not shaken, after the tsunami. That the crisis created a mental health nightmare is undeniable: the World Health Organization estimates that up to 10 percent of Aceh’s population suffered diagnosable post-tsunami stress-related disorders.

But Islam is believed, by the Acehnese at least, to have prevented a large number of survivors from spiraling towards suicide.

Managing volunteers: After both crises, a TV loop of heartbreaking footage inspired a global outpouring of sympathy.

Japan, in particular, witnessed an inspiring boom in volunteerism. Months after the tsunami hit Tohoku, volunteers continued flowing in so fast that officials were overwhelmed. Many were turned away.

Accounts from Aceh tell of a similar phenomenon: unprepared outsiders, both Indonesian and foreign, flooded into a landscape of total chaos. Speaking to Guernica magazine after the tsunami, a prominent NGO coordinator described volunteers from Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, as “people who complicated the situation even further. They were taking photographs of dead bodies, looking like tourists.”

Both crises underscore a common refrain heard from aid groups: in disaster zones where transport, food and bedding are lacking, an unskilled volunteer can actually deprive survivors. The lesson: It's better to send money, and leave the complex relief work to the professionals.

As the Center for International Disaster Information puts it, during a major crisis, “Most offers of ‘another body’ to drive trucks, set up tents, feed children and perform similar duties are simply not accepted.”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.