Diary of a disaster: SurfAid International to the rescue

Cynthia Webb, Contributor, Gold Coast, Australia | Tue, 11/09/2010 9:23 AM | EnvironmentDisaster relief: SurfAid personal on a rubber boat bring supplies from their service vessel to Mentawai islanders in need, across a shallow reef. Courtesy of SurfAid InternationalDisaster relief: SurfAid personal on a rubber boat bring supplies from their service vessel to Mentawai islanders in need, across a shallow reef. Courtesy of SurfAid International Only 10 minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami charged into the surf resort known as Macaroni’s, advertised as “a paradise on earth”.

The following morning SurfAid’s Tom Plummer, (Mentawai program manager) suspecting disaster at Macaroni’s, arrived from Padang to find everything destroyed up to a level of 3 meters. All the bungalows were gone, however the well-built three-story building had saved the lives of everyone.

The guests had experienced and filmed the series of tsunami waves from the top floor. They also observed a fire at sea nearby to the famous surf-break, where two surf travel boats were moored.

The wave crashed the vessels together and “Midas” burst into flames. All jumped overboard and miraculously made it to shore, and clung to trees during the subsequent waves. They then joined the shocked band of surfers. All were returned to Padang, on a boat sent by SurfAid with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

Surfers can swim, they understand what’s going on, and are good at keeping their nerve. These skills would have saved them. CEO of SurfAid International, Andrew Judge, told The Jakarta Post “The skipper of Midas, Rick Hallett, will return this week to help in the aid effort, after a quick trip home to Australia to hug his children.”

***
At 9:45 p.m. on Oct. 25, an undersea 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck with an epicenter located just south of South Pagai Island, West Sumatra, and created a tsunami which at exposed villages nearby was reported to be six meters high.

SurfAid International sprang to action the following morning, knowing that many of what they call “their communities” — the low lying and seaside Mentawai villages, would be in a state of catastrophe.

Along the coasts of the islands of Sipora, North and South Pagai, villages were washed away entirely, and hundreds of village people died or were badly injured. Those who survived ran into the inland areas, and for days afterwards were afraid to come out, fearing more tsunamis.

SurfAid’s website states that tsunamis kill a disproportionately large number of women, children and the elderly, because they have less strength to hang on, as the wave recedes.

On Oct. 26, SurfAid’s representatives immediately began to explore all of the affected areas, searching out the local people and bringing what help they could.

On Oct. 27, SurfAid launched their appeal, and began coordinating with the Mentawai Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD) to undertake a rapid assessment and initial response.

On Oct. 28, Vice President Boediono visited Padang and met with the CEO, Andrew Judge. The following day the vice president requested SurfAid temporarily take the lead in coordinating the NGOs, to which the CEO of SurfAid responded: “To take the lead coordinating role in this disaster is a great honor and a huge level of responsibility.”

The most vulnerable: Children from the hamlet of Limo Sua, South Pagai, wait to receive treatment after the earthquake and tsunami that struck Mentawai Islands.JP/R. Berto WedhatamaThe most vulnerable: Children from the hamlet of Limo Sua, South Pagai, wait to receive treatment after the earthquake and tsunami that struck Mentawai Islands.JP/R. Berto Wedhatama On Oct. 30, a massive storm approached the area, and for several days no boats could go to sea
except for the large vessel “Indies Trader IV” and the smaller “Indies Trader III”.

One aid vessel carrying generators was capsized by a huge wave, however luckily all five people aboard were rescued.

Judge said the “Indies Trader IV”, which is the largest boat in the Mentawai area, was funded by the New Zealand government with an immediate donation of US$100,000 so that work could continue during the storm.

Even the regular ferry from Padang, “Ambu Ambu” was forced to turn back. It’s a 150-kilometer crossing from Sumatra.

Of course the affected villages are mainly on the Western side of the islands, where the full exposure to Indian Ocean swells posed huge difficulty for the aid flotilla.

There are no piers, only dangerous beach access, often across reefs. There are a limited number of access points and supplies sometimes must be transported overland in places where there are no roads.
The storm also made life even more miserable for the bereft and terrified village people of the Mentawai Islands still awaiting aid. They had no shelter, and were unable to even change their clothes. Everything they had was gone.

SurfAid and helpers have now distributed tarpaulins, mosquito nets, hygiene kits, building kits,
rice, noodles, medical supplies, kitchen kits, cooking oil, blankets, towels, clean water, floormats, ropes — and other necessities, although at the time of writing the weather was still bad.

Many of the aid vessels which SurfAid International coordinates and enlists for the rescue effort are privately owned charter boats, which usually ply these waters, taking the world’s surfers to ride
the legendary waves of the Mentawai Islands. They have their own boat, and some local long boats are also assisting.

On Nov. 1, Plummer and news media arrived at the island of North Pagai, and filed a video report from the place that was once the village of Gogoa.

He said, “I’m blown away by what we have seen here. So much destruction, and so many lives lost. There’s nothing left. Survivors are so shattered and scared they cannot even eat, even if food is available, and in many cases they are running short of it. They are surviving on coconuts and rainwater.

They are living in the mud, trying to shelter from rain. There are no sanitation facilities. Their survival threshold is very narrow.”

Tom also commented on the difficulty of reconciling the idea that just behind him, over the palm trees, was another well-known surf break, “Bat Cave”, where boatloads of surfers regularly come to have fun and enjoy the waves.

Californian surfing industry identity, Bob Hurley, and his surfing mates have abandoned their surf trip to assist in the relief effort.

Homeless: A little girl waits for aid, following the loss of her home in the tsunami. Courtesy of SurfAid InternationalHomeless: A little girl waits for aid, following the loss of her home in the tsunami. Courtesy of SurfAid International On Nov. 4, Judge told the Post  they had handed over the leading role to the UN.

“The Indonesian government identified SurfAid as a key partner right after the disaster and we have done all we can to report on the situation in the Mentawai area as quickly as possible and respond to the needs, through extreme weather.

“As a Mentawai based NGO, we have a lot of local knowledge, we have been providing all we know to the government of Indonesia and other NGOs so as to best assist the people of the Mentawai,” Judge said.
He added that representatives from 160 Indonesian and international NGOs had arrived to offer help, including the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI), Mercy Malaysia and International Organization for Migration (IOM).

However many were stuck in the town of Sikakap, on the eastern side of North Pagai Island, and because of the bad weather conditions and lack of infrastructure, these organizations were unable to get to the locations where help is needed.

While saluting their well-meaning motivations, The government of Indonesia and SurfAid have suggested that those who cannot arrange to do anything should leave the stressed town of Sikakap, whose population has doubled. They began to depart on November 5.

On the Nov. 5, SurfAid’s Plummer reported that on the previous day, they had been able to fight their way through wild wind and seas on board “Indies Trader IV” to bring aid to the villages of Limu, and Limo Sua on South Pagai Island, where this hamlet of 33 households formed a line, including smiling children, to help unload a tin boat full of welcome supplies.

“It’s been the worst weather conditions in three or four years with a 3-4 meter swell running,” Tom reported. Because conditions got worse, they were unable to go on to Maonai Village until the next day.
The SurfAid International NGO was started 10 years ago, by Dave Jenkins, a New Zealand surfer, who took a surfing trip to enjoy the Mentawai area’s excellent waves, and went ashore, where he saw the desperate ill health of the locals and the need for education.

He just couldn’t forget what he’d seen, and he struggled for quite a while to raise funds to help, eventually enlisting the mega surfing industry corporations of the world into the effort.

He knew then that SurfAid would survive and since that time they have achieved some amazing improvements for the local people with education in health and hygiene, and wide distribution of mosquito nets.

Nature growls: Some of the island’s buildings have been flattened by the tsunami that hit South Pagai Island more than a week ago. JP/R. Berto Wedhatama  Nature growls: Some of the island’s buildings have been flattened by the tsunami that hit South Pagai Island more than a week ago. JP/R. Berto Wedhatama  However SurfAid’s work has been interrupted by no less than five catastrophes, in the form of earthquakes and associated tsunamis. One was of world-shattering proportions, when a 9.2-magnitude earthquake struck on Boxing Day of 2004, off the coast of Aceh, and the ensuing tsunami’s destructive power and reach is well known.

A few months afterwards, another massive earthquake struck the island of Nias — another favorite destination of surfers — for the famous waves at Lagundri Bay.

The people of the Mentawai Islands will need help for a long time after this disaster has disappeared from news headlines.

SurfAid International and others will be working in the area for a long time to come. They’ve budgeted $2.86 million for future work, and one-quarter needs to come via their public appeal for donations.

SurfAid International and the surfing community of the world now have a long lasting and permanent connection and commitment to the Mentawai Islands, and the islands further to the West.

It’s a cultural exchange — caring and assistance, in exchange for the opportunity to enjoy some of the world’s best waves, and the friendship of the local Indonesian people.

 


The 10-year story of SurfAid International was published in the The Sunday Post Supplement on March 14, 2010.
Day by day reports from the Mentawai Islands, maps, pictures can be found on http://www.surfaidinternational.org
For interesting information,
a map of the area and pictures, visit
http://www.macaronisresort.com


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