Rebuilding after disasters

Scenes of destruction: An excavator clearing out the rubble at Pidie Jaya, Banda Aceh. Inset: A newly-constructed building now on the verge of collapse.

THE destruction caused by a disaster is heartbreaking to see. But it is the recovery in the wake of every disaster that gives people hope and strength.

I recently went to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, to cover the effects of the 6.5 magnitude earthquake on Dec 7.

I was part of a team from the Malaysian Red Crescent to observe Indonesia Red Cross’ relief work a week following the quake.

Experts described the earthquake as “strong and shallow” and I had seen pictures of crumbled buildings there. I was prepared for the worst.

It was my first time covering a disaster, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. With my sleeping bag and instant noodles in tow, I was ready for my journey to Banda Aceh.

The city itself wasn’t affected by the quake, but during my early morning car ride to Pidie Jaya, the district where the earthquake struck, I started to see the damage.

Some houses have been completely reduced to rubble, but other structures were only partly damaged.

Tarp covered missing walls and roofs, and tents were set up for people who no longer had homes to go back to.

The extent of the damage by the earthquake was bad, displacing around half of Pidie Jaya’s population. I was told that 85,333 people were displaced. The earthquake claimed 102 lives, while 970 people were injured.

The number of deaths might not seem large, especially if you’re comparing with the hundreds of thousands who died during the 2004 earthquake and tsunami, but my heart still went out for the lives that were recently lost.

This mosque had just finished being constructed, now it is on the verge of collapse.
A newly-constructed building now on the verge of collapse.

So many youngsters died in the quake. The youngest victim was just 18 months old.

“A lot of people were crushed by the falling debris. Many people were asleep and couldn’t get out in time,” said Malaysian Red Crescent rapid deployment squad member and regional disaster response member Rozalla Iskandar.

It was Rozalla’s first time returning to Banda Aceh since 2004, when he was sent to help with relief efforts after the earthquake and tsunami.

“2004 was a lot worse, there were a lot more bodies,” he said. “But the Indonesian authorities are a lot more prepared now, they have learnt a lot after 2004.”

One of our stops was the Pidie Jaya General Hospital, where patients were forced outside to the covered walkways because the building had been declared unsafe.

As we carefully walked through the building, we saw rooms covered in a thick layer of dust from fallen chunks of concrete. Unnervingly large cracks lined the walls and ceiling.

Although the hospital building was not usable, the hospital was still running and caring for patients, other than serious cases and those who needed surgery. Tents were set up outside the hospital for patients to collect medication and to be examined.

Hospital beds were lined up along the walkways, with cloth draped along the side to block out the sun.

I couldn’t help but feel bad for the patients who were trying to rest amid the noise and heat. There were no fans or seats for the patients and their family. And there was no semblance of privacy, with countless people walking past their beds.

The town of Pidie Jaya still seemed to be bustling, with the authorities and volunteers pouring in from around the country to help.

At the hospital, repair works were already under way. People were fixing broken roof panels along the walkways where the patients’ beds were placed.

Excavators were also seen at some places where the destruction was devastating.

Several mosques in the town had been virtually demolished, and the excavators were removing chunks of concrete from the sites.

Even a newly built mosque wasn’t spared. Its construction had just finished when the tremors hit. There are now huge cracks along the pillars and it looks like it could topple at any moment.

Shoplots have been reduced to rubble. I saw an excavator pull out a completely flattened car from beneath the debris. It was a miracle that nobody was killed when the building collapsed. Countless homes have also been damaged. Some just had cracks in their walls, but others were completely demolished.

An Indonesian Red Cross volunteer named Mukhtar brought us to a house that had totally collapsed.

“This is my house. I moved in in 2014, so I haven’t been living here for long. But now it is like this,” he said with a sad smile.

I felt so bad for him. The walls and roof had completely collapsed and most of the furniture was crushed beneath the debris.

“My father, myself and three siblings managed to evacuate the building in time. I am thankful that we are all safe,” added Mukhtar.

But his neighbours weren’t so lucky. Two young children from down the road suffered fractures. “Their mother is also scared of entering houses now,” he said.

Indonesia Red Cross said it would be helping the survivors to recover from their physical and psychological injuries.

At the Pidie Jaya Red Cross headquarters, lots of vehicles and supplies were being delivered by various agencies around Indonesia.

Food, water, medicine, crutches and wheelchairs were among the things that were arriving and being sorted out while I visited the building.

About a hundred Indonesia Red Cross volunteers were distributing food and medical supplies in areas affected by the quake. Others were helping to give medical and physiotherapy treatment to victims.

People could also be seen clearing rubble, and I saw police and military personnel helping to rebuild homes.

Everyone seemed to have a job to do. It was truly heartwarming to see so many people come together to help the people of Pidie Jaya.

Despite the Aceh Government declaring a state of emergency for 14 days in response to the quake, everything was calm and orderly.

The Indonesian authorities seemed to have everything under control. The electricity supply had been restored in most areas. Tanks had been sent to provide households with water. Badly damaged roads had already been repaired. All in the span of a week.

It certainly showed how the country’s disaster management has improved.

Although the Dec 7 earthquake was a tragedy, the town is on the way to recovery. If the Banda Aceh experience after 2004 is anything to go by, Pidie Jaya will soon rebuild and be back on its feet.

Disasters show how fragile life is. But they also show us how strong and resilient we are, and how after such devastation, we will rise again.

Online reporter Victoria Brown’s Behind The Cage tackles the pressing issues of animal rights and environmental awareness. She can be reached at

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