The seven-storey Roa Roa Hotel, with its clean lines and bright blue decor, was one of the few high-rises in the small Indonesian city of Palu, on Sulawesi Island, offering a dash of style to visitors on a budget.
Just under half the hotel’s 50 rooms were booked on the last Friday of September, many of them by athletes competing in a gliding championship that was taking place nearby. As evening fell, some guests headed out for dinner. Others chose to stay behind and relax.
Then the ground began to rumble. Staff and guests rushed to escape as the magnitude 7.5 quake cracked the hotel’s concrete columns, reducing the building to a pile of twisted steel and rubble.
The Roa Roa, which was completed in 2014, wasn’t the only major building that failed in the quake and the tsunami that followed. The Mercure hotel overlooking the city’s distinctively shaped bay, the Ramayana shopping centre, hospitals, schools and the airport’s control tower were all badly damaged in the disaster, which left more than 2,100 people dead and hundreds missing.
Indonesia is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, experiencing seismic activity on an almost daily basis and an earthquake of magnitude 5 about once a week on average. Just two months before the Sulawesi disaster, two earthquakes rocked the island of Lombok, killing 500.
“I see that these earthquakes are our wake-up call,” Raditya Jati, director of disaster risk reduction at Indonesia’s National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB), told Al Jazeera.
“This is the right moment for us [to have] structural mitigation and non-structural mitigation. There’s got to be an effort to manage risk.”
It’s not only earthquakes that put Indonesians at risk. The archipelago is vulnerable to a range of other natural disasters including landslides, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, which make it even more complicated to build structures that can survive the impact.
Palu also saw widespread soil liquefaction with entire communities disappearing into the resulting mud.
“[Sulawesi] was a complex disaster,” said Elizabeth Hausler, founder and CEO of Build Change, which works in developing countries, including Indonesia, to help local communities build homes that can better withstand natural disasters.
“We should be able to design a control tower to withstand that, but this is complex science, complex research, and complex engineering. The US, Japan and maybe a few other countries are state of the art on this, but it has not spread throughout the world.”
Over the past 30 years, Indonesia has reported an average of 289 significant natural disasters each year with an average annual death toll of about 8,000 people, according to the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery. While falling masonry and collapsed buildings are the main cause of injury and death in an earthquake, it is only recently that Indonesia began to tighten its construction regulations.
The first building codes were issued in 1998 and it was only in 2002 that a national building law was passed (it had been a draft since 1964). A national standard on seismic design was established in 2012, along with a revised manual on improving seismic resistance in larger buildings. Indonesia’s earthquake risk map, meanwhile, was updated last year, identifying the areas of the archipelago most at risk of seismic activity.
“An appropriately designed earthquake-resistant building should perform satisfactorily during an earthquake,” said Wael Hassan, an associate professor in structural and earthquake engineering at the University of Alaska.
Like other developing nations in earthquake-prone regions, Hassan said that, in Indonesia, there is a large gap between design practices, construction itself and the enforcement of building regulations. “A good seismic design with poor construction and quality control won’t help resist the earthquake.”
Architects admit there is pressure to reduce costs, and changes are made as a result. But they insist there is no compromising safety.
“In my experience, the client asks for the cheapest possible,” said Brahmastyo Puji Pamadyo, who is head of the professional registration department at the Institute of Architects Indonesia in Jakarta.
“But every time we discuss this with the client, the architect, the structural expert and others, safety standards are something that are non-negotiable. So if they want to reduce the budget, what could be bargained over is something like the facade or interior materials – but not like, ‘let’s reduce one column’.”
Earthquake-resistant buildings need to be engineered for horizontal forces (tremors) as well as the vertical forces of a conventional building, to have strong connections between their concrete columns and horizontal beams and to incorporate numerous other features to reduce the risk of outright collapse during an earthquake.
“They might be repairable and they might not be repairable, but they won’t kill people and that’s the most important thing,” said Hassan.
The World Bank currently estimates the cost of the disaster in Sulawesi at $500m, including damage totalling $185m for commercial and industrial buildings and $165m for infrastructure.
“The high impact on commercial-industrial buildings could affect operations and recovery in the retail and tourism, education and health sectors,” the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance, known as the AHA Centre, wrote in its most recent update on the situation.
Losses could well be higher because World Bank estimate does not include the costs of equipment, social impact, or effects on business.
“We don’t look for someone to blame,” said Jati. “We’re looking for a solution for the future. If we have adopted this map and we’re aware that there’s the risk of an earthquake, there’s got to be monitoring on how to control it. We’re not talking only about the government, but also the developer, private sector, or anyone who is developing within high-risk area.”
Many Indonesians will not resort to professional architects or engineers when building their own homes, instead doing it themselves using bricks, concrete and tiles.
“They think that using [a] steel core is something luxurious,” IAI’s Pamadyo said. “In many houses, they’re just using bricks. They think that strong material is a strong structure when actually [a strong] structure is a system.”
Build Change has been working in Indonesia since 2005 and provides training in bricklaying and other crucial construction skills, as well as simple manuals to help villagers build safer homes.
Hausler said construction standards have improved greatly in recent years, especially in Sumatra where a number of serious quakes have underlined the need for safer homes.
“We have seen things change,” she said. “We see an improvement and people building back better… We also see people going back to building in timber, maybe with a masonry skirt wall. It’s actually much better in an earthquake.”
In Sulawesi, nearly 68,500 homes were destroyed in the disaster, but houses are actually subject to less stringent regulations on earthquake resistance than buildings that are considered of greater importance to the community – an airport, hospital or other building where large numbers of people gather – or central to disaster response.
With a badly damaged runway and no functional control tower, Palu’s skies were closed at a time when emergency teams were desperate to get into the city and residents eager to get out.
Collapsed hospitals and damaged clinics made it hard to treat the badly injured – more than 4,600 people in Palu and surrounding districts. Some 45 health facilities were destroyed or damaged in and around Palu, according to the AHA Centre.
Working in the hard-hit area of Sigi, which was also affected by soil liquefaction, MERCY Malaysia found patients fearful of stepping inside the district health facility.
“Like all other buildings that are still standing there are cracks on the walls,” said Dr Shalimar Abdullah, a specialist with MERCY Malaysia’s relief team, which helped set up a field hospital outside.
“Even visitors like us were nervous entering the building, what more the patients who have to spend hours waiting in line.”
Indonesian schools, while usually single-storey, tend to have large windows and an unreinforced gable roof that is vulnerable to collapse in an earthquake. More than 2,700 were damaged in the Sulawesi disaster. Experts say revisions to school design standards are necessary to reinforce the masonry around the windows – making them sturdier – and helping strengthen the entire structure.
The Roa Roa’s architects declined to speak to Al Jazeera. But as rescue teams continued to search the rubble for survivors earlier this month, the hotel’s owner, Denny Liem, appeared on local television.
“The hotel was designed to withstand an earthquake as high as 8 on the Richter scale,” he told the reporter as dust billowed in the air.
With reporting by Heru Harry Rahadi