With recent hurricanes and specifically the tsunami in Palu, Indonesia, we’re reminded yet again of the devastating impact that natural disasters have on individuals and families across the world.
BYU Geography professor Chad Emmett is taking action to make sure that no matter how devastating earthquakes and tsunamis can be, lives do not have to be lost in the process.
Evaluate (and recognize) regional risk
Indonesia is at a high risk of earthquakes and tsunamis because of its location on the Ring of Fire where several tectonic plates collide. Add this risk to limited infrastructure and a lack of uniform tsunami education and evacuation plans, and the potential damage is astronomical.
Since the 2004 Aceh tsunami, national and local disaster mitigation agencies across the Southeast Asia country have worked to better prepare Indonesians against tsunami risk by putting up evacuation signs, designating gathering places, building tsunami evacuation buildings, offering training and holding evacuation drills. What hasn’t been done, however, is emphasizing the need for individuals to know the signs of tsunamis and the need for individuals to act on their own to save their lives.
“The tsunami monitors and sirens did not work in Palu,” notes Emmett in regards to the catastrophic aftermath of the recent tsunami. “At the first shaking of the earth, people should have instinctively headed to higher ground.”
Emmett has been involved in research in Indonesia over the past 18 years. While the majority of his studies focus on Christian-Muslim relations and the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Indonesia, more recently Emmett has worked with BYU Geology professor Ron Harris to collaborate on an interdisciplinary study looking at tsunami mitigation and training efforts in the country.
Educating for a better-prepared future
During the summers of 2016 and 2017, Emmett and a group of BYU and UVU students and faculty (funded by Geoscientists without Borders) traveled the more than 9,000 miles to Indonesia to perform critical research and carry out essential education in regards to tsunamis.
Most tsunami safety trainings were given in secondary schools, but Emmett and his team also trained local disaster mitigation officials, a governor and his staff, tourism personnel, factory workers and scout troops. Trainings by Emmett’s team consisted of a survey to evaluate present knowledge on tsunami safety, interactive education on specific risk factors and safety actions to take in the event of a tsunami, and practice evacuation drills on designated evacuation paths.
During one such training at a small Islamic junior high, Emmett recalls one student who, as she watched a short documentary about the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, wiped tears from her eyes with the corner of her hijab. “As she watched first the devastation of the earth quake and then the coming of the wave, she mourned with those that mourn and sorrowed for the hundreds of thousands who died. She and many other students now understand that their island is also susceptible to such devastation,” shares Emmett.
As someone who has personally experienced an earthquake in Indonesia, Emmett empathized with those he taught and understood the need for improved tsunami awareness education and training.
Developing safety instincts
Regardless if a monitor or siren goes off, if people feel the earth move, they need to act immediately. Knowing the principles of tsunamis can help individuals know how to act when these moments occur.
Professor Emmett shares that the best indicators of a tsunami (and the need to move) are earthquakes and receding ocean water.
“When the earth shakes (soft or hard) for more than 20 seconds, there is a high possibility that a tsunami will follow. Given the close proximity of the trenches and other fault lines…a tsunami’s first wave may strike [within] 20 minutes of [an] earthquake,” says Emmett.
Despite sometimes confusing signage, Indonesians generally know to head for hills when tsunamis strike. The difference between surviving a tsunami or not is simply how fast you can get to that hill or evacuation structure.
“To save themselves, people have 20 minutes to flee to an elevation of at least 20 meters,” continues Emmett. “Mountains are the logical place to go, but taller buildings (with three or more stories, such as larger hotels) can provide safety, too. If people wait for a siren or warning from the government, it may be too late.”
This 20-20-20 rule (if the earth shakes for more than 20 seconds, you have 20 minutes to get to a height of 20 meters), if carried out correctly, can save thousands of lives and entire communities from mourning preventable loss.
Practice what you teach
After educating individuals on the principles of tsunami safety, Emmett also presses the importance of practicing for actual tsunami situations. Emmett’s evaluation of evacuation procedures and routes and his holding of tsunami evacuation drills is, according to Emmett, his main contribution to this initiative.
Tsunami evacuation drills are essential to Emmett and his team’s further evaluation of safety procedures and precautions as well as an essential aspect of educating Indonesians on how to act and where to go in the event of a tsunami. With each step students and community members make on their way up hills and roads to designated evacuation sites, they are more aware and prepared for the inevitable tsunamis to come in the future and how to survive them.. . .
Tsunamis are at the heart of the history and culture of many Indonesian villages and towns. After Professor Emmett and others’ educational and research efforts, however, Indonesian history and culture does not have to be accompanied by the sorrow and loss that all too often accompany tsunamis.
For more on Professor Emmett and his colleague’s past work on tsunami education and research in Indonesia, visit Professor Emmett’s blog about their 2016 trip to Pangandaran, Pacitan and Pelabuhanratu on Java and their 2017 trip to Bali, Lombok, and Sumba.