Shaken – And Stirred, Too

By Vyt Karazija

After a leisurely breakfast, I’m wending my way home on the motorbike, riding peacefully along Jl Padma Utara, when all hell breaks free. My bike joggles up and down as if it was on a cobbled road, and I’m shaken sideways with such force that I barely manage to hang on. The poor local ahead of me doesn’t. With his left hand off the handlebars while performing the ubiquitous Bali texting-while-riding trick, he wobbles mightily before crashing to the road.

For a few seconds, I don’t grasp what is happening. I think at first my front wheel has collapsed. Then I become aware of a sound like an approaching plane at low altitude and a loud clanging as if imprisoned demons were rattling the bars of their cages. The outlines of buildings look blurred, power lines are whipping backwards and forwards, and mortar dust is squirting and dribbling out of cracks in masonry. A new sound emerges from the chaos – people screaming in absolute terror.

A human wave bursts out of shops and restaurants, their faces contorted with fear, and rushes into the street, oblivious to vehicles bearing down on them. They are looking upwards, because the deep, frightening noise seems to come from above, and because plumes of dust are rising into the sky. I follow their gaze, looking for explanations. I briefly think that a plane has crashed nearby and we are feeling the after-effects of some vast concussive impact. As the realisation dawns that it’s actually an earthquake, self-preservation kicks in and I look overhead for anything nasty that might fall on me.

Hundreds of people don’t, standing in what they think is the safety of the road, but directly underneath the snaking power lines that are now arcing and crackling overhead. “Hati-hati!” I call out, pointing upwards and telling them to be careful. My public-spiritedness causes a fresh panic surge as the crowd sprints for a clear place of safety, trampling small dogs in their path. Oops, sorry about that…

Apart from a few fallen tiles, cracked walls and minimal debris, there doesn’t seem to be much damage where I am. But people elsewhere are not so lucky. Reports indicate that about 60 people were hospitalised, with three critically injured. This probably does not represent anywhere near the actual numbers hurt. On my way home I see several locals resting by the roadside, makeshift blood-stained bandages variously covering knees, heads or shoulders. I ask one whether he needs to go to hospital.

“No, no!” he says, almost in panic. “I die in hospital; doctors do nothing if you have no money!” I don’t know whether that is true, but he certainly seems to believe it. And when the perception of the citizenry is that you won’t get medical treatment unless you pay first, people without money won’t seek treatment even if they desperately need it. Maybe Bali’s disaster-management and emergency medical-care strategies – and their promotion – need to be overhauled.

Knots of locals are clustered together, still in shock. Their eyes are towards the sea, out of sight, but only a few hundred metres away. Having survived the shaking, a possible tsunami is uppermost in their minds. I try to reassure them that the tsunami warning sirens haven’t gone off. One looks at me with ill-concealed impatience. “They don’t work,” he says simply. Later I find out that the coastal tsunami sensor buoys donated by the German government are all, save one, out of commission. Fishermen have been mooring their boats to them, damaging the hardware and sensitive electronics. Apparently the local government hasn’t even bothered to maintain them. They simply don’t do the job any more.

It’s true that land-based seismic sensors can provide data which warn of an impending tsunami, after which authorities are supposed to activate the beach-side sirens. But there seems to be a logical design flaw in the system. If the sirens activate with a continuous warning wail, all well and good. But if they don’t go off at all, is it because there is no risk of inundation? Or is it because the sirens themselves have failed? Everyone feels an earthquake, so everyone is primed to listen to a tsunami warning. If it is determined that there is no risk, why not sound the sirens with repeated short, sharp pulses to indicate an all-clear? At least it would let the population know that things are working as they should.

Still later, I discover that most of the buildings that suffered considerable structural damage, or actually collapsed, were schools and government buildings. Many of the injured were children. If this is in fact the case, one has to ask: Why are government buildings and schools more susceptible to earthquake damage in a region that is known for frequent temblors? Dare one even think that authorities would skimp on construction costs, and therefore safety, where children are concerned? I would hope not. But this being Bali, an investigation might be useful. It might save lives in the future.

I have been in Bali during a few quakes over the years. This one felt stronger than any of them. I understand that two simultaneous shocks occurred, one of magnitude 6.1 and the second of 6.8, which might explain the subjective severity of this particular series of jolts. But the real jolt last week was to our sense of security. One would also hope that the authorities are jolted into performing safety audits on buildings which house vulnerable children, into revising post-disaster procedures and into checking on the efficacy of tsunami-warning systems.

If a big one hits here, as it did in Japan, just how ready are we?

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