Indonesian city grapples with quake threat

PADANG, Indonesia (Reuters) - Remember the name Padang. Geologists say this Indonesian city of 900,000 people may one day be destroyed by a huge earthquake as it is in a seismic hot spot in one of the most quake-prone places in the world.

Elementary school students recite Asma'ul Husna, or Islam's 99 names of God, on the school field before their morning class in Padang, January 27, 2009. REUTERS/Olivia Rondonuwu

Given its dangerous location, experts say Padang must do more to protect its residents from a huge quake that could trigger a tsunami and wipe out this old port city on the west coast of the island of Sumatra.

“Padang sits right in front of the area with the greatest potential for an 8.9 magnitude earthquake,” said Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, a geologist at the Indonesian Science Institute.

“The entire city could drown,” in a tsunami triggered by such a quake, he warned.

Padang, the capital of West Sumatra province, sits on one of the world’s most active fault lines along the Pacific “Ring of Fire” where the Indo-Australia plate grinds against the Eurasia plate to create regular earth tremors and sometimes quakes.

Reta, a 31-year-old bank employee who like many Indonesians only uses one name, said she panics when she feels the buildings shake in one of Padang’s frequent tremors.

“Our religion is very strong, and what we do is pray and hope we will not end up like Aceh,” she said.

A 9.15 magnitude quake, with its epicenter roughly 600 kilometers (373 miles) northwest of Padang, caused the 2004 tsunami which killed 232,000 people in Indonesia’s Aceh province, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and other countries across the Indian Ocean.


Natawidjaja predicts that an 8.9 magnitude quake could strike Padang within three decades and set off a tsunami even more devastating than the one in 2004. The wall of water in the 2004 tsunami reached as high as 30 meters (98 feet) in some parts.

Padang’s population is roughly three times that of Banda Aceh at the time of the 2004 tsunami. Even more of a concern to quake experts is that there are only limited escape routes from a tsunami in this flat coastal strip.

Eager to learn from the disaster in 2004 and prevent another such catastrophe, Indonesia is setting up an early warning system in the hope that this would give people enough time to reach safety.

Several earthquake-prone parts of the country hold tsunami practice drills, and the national disaster service sends alerts via telephone text messages to subscribers.

But some experts say Indonesia needs to do more to reduce the risk of catastrophe.

Padang needs to invest in better infrastructure, including more roads and other escape routes as city exits could easily be blocked with cars and panicking residents immediately after a big quake and tsunami, says Hugh Goyder, a consultant for the United Nations’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

“The road goes parallel to the coast, which means it’s difficult in some areas to get away from the coast,” Goyder said, adding that in one part of the city, the only escape route is a narrow bridge.

“If you only have five or 10 minutes, that will cause a lot of panic. For a very small investment you can widen that bridge.”

A plan to install satellite-linked buoys as part of a tsunami early warning system has run into problems, after two of them were stolen by fishermen.


Other precautions of a far less technical nature have also proved difficult, or controversial.

At the local schools, quake and tsunami drills form part of physical exercise classes. Children are taught to hide under their desks immediately after a tremor and then run to a shelter.

Fauzi Bahar, the mayor of Padang who is from one of the Islamic parties, has also ordered local residents to pray for safety. He plans to provide swimming lessons for children, and those who memorize part of the Koran will be entitled to free entry at the public swimming pool, due to open later this year.

If the “big one” were to hit Padang and its environs today, residents would have to rely on an early warning system based on a few installed buoys and round-the-clock monitoring of the shoreline.

In the next year or two, warnings may also go out through thousands of mosques, all of which have loud speakers for the call to prayer, and on state radio.

That should allow the authorities to decide whether to issue a tsunami warning and order an evacuation within 15 minutes, said Ade Edward, head of West Sumatra’s disaster management unit.

But scientists including Natawidjaja believe that residents may have just 10 minutes to scramble to higher ground before a tsunami hits.

Instead, Padang’s residents may have to rely on their own quick reflexes and one of the best-known warning signs of a tsunami, a sudden receding of the sea.

“People in Aceh didn’t run when the water receded quickly. But people in Padang now know that means there will be a tsunami,” said Natawidjaja. (Editing by Sara Webb and Megan Goldin)