When it comes to coping with natural disasters, Indonesia has a lot in common with the United States, Willem Rampangilei, the director of the country’s National Disaster Management Authority, told students, faculty and staff during a special Global Studies Institute session Wednesday evening.
Ramangilei is the father of Malachy Rampangilei ’19, who set up the session as part of his senior service project.
Indonesia is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, which includes Alaska and the west coast of the U.S. The country’s 18,000 islands covers nearly the same distance as the United States. The U.S. ranks third in population with more than 329 million people and Indonesia ranks fourth with nearly 253 million.
But there are major differences. Because the population is so spread out, there are 300 different ethnic groups speaking 700 local dialects. And those people live in very vulnerable locations. Rampangilei said 148.4 million people are exposed to the threat of earthquakes; 63.7 million are exposed to flooding; 40.9 million are exposed to landslides; 3.8 million are under the threat of tsunamis; and 1.2 million are threatened by the country’s 127 active volcanoes.
And, the degradation of the environment is compounding that problem, Rampangilei explained. Most people have heard the term “500-year storm,” he said, but Indonesia has experienced 26 such storms in the past decade. Those storms exposed half the population to the risks of flooding and landslides.
Indonesia is still recovering from the combination of a 7.4 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami in Palu and Donggala on Sept. 28, 2018, Rampangilei said. The population of the impacted areas was 335,000 people, who were displaced. The initial death toll was more than 4,000. It is now 6,000-plus.
Rampangilei, who retired from the Indonesian navy as a rear admiral, relies on his military logistics expertise to coordinate the response and recovery efforts. He explained there is a “golden time” of three days in which to reach people with the necessary services. That time frame involves reaching people as soon as possible, finding survivors, and moving everyone to safer locations. But, because of circumstances, that deadline was missed at Palu.
Part of the problem was the combination of the earthquake and tsunami knocked out traditional modes of bringing in relief. The roads were destroyed and the airport and the naval base were not usable. The local government offices couldn’t function, so there was no support. And there was no source of clean drinking water. When he arrived on the scene the next day, the only open facility was the hospital, which was overflowing.
The region also has an unusual characteristic. During the earthquake, the water and soil mixed together so violently that it liquefied. Buildings – and the occupants – sank in seconds. And the area covered hundreds of acres, making large sections of a community unfit for future use.
Plus Palu was built on a fault line and there have been nearly a thousand aftershocks since the original quake, some registering as high at 5.3 on the richter scale. For safety reasons, sections of the city will have to be moved, he said, making the recovery even more difficult. “We are still assessing damage to some of the houses,” he said.
Every disaster is different. And his department, which didn’t even exist 10 years ago, treats each one as a learning experience, Rampangilei added. By understanding the risks, working to reduce the level of those risks, and responding to the disaster as quickly as possible makes the recovery go faster and easier.
“What we do will never be enough,” he said. “But we will do our best.”