Palu disaster: Road to recovery after escaping the ‘Apocalypse’
Fierceness and scale of the disaster has had many survivors in disbelief how they cheated death.
Palu, Indonesia – “Ayir! Ayir!” (“Water! Water!”), people screamed in horror, pointing to the wall of water barreling towards Palu, just minutes after a 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck the central Sulawesi city on September 28.
The water advanced like a speeding train and roared like thunder. Then waves as high as six metres slammed the coast with a force that ripped out trees, flattened buildings and swept many to their deaths.
That Friday, Satna, 52, and her 31-year-old daughter Herne were at their usual spot by the eastern foot of the city’s yellow arched bridge, Ponulele. For a year, they had been selling the chicken and coconut milk delicacy, utatadah, and some beverages from a bamboo stall by the sea. A paragliding event and cultural festival were scheduled that weekend, so heavy foot traffic was expected.
Maghrib prayer had just begun and the last ray of the sun was still peeking through the Gawalise mountain range that looms more than 2,000 metres over the city of 350,000 people. The sky was clear and the wind was blowing comfortably. At 27 degrees Celsius, it was perfect for the festivities that night.
Then the earth started rocking back and forth.
The violence of the tremor quickly triggered a tsunami. An earthquake-related phenomenon called “liquefaction” also followed, turning the ground into rampaging mud that buried whole villages and their residents. “Banjir lumpur”, a flood of mud, locals referred to it with dread. Pockets of fire around the city were also reported.
As of Monday, at least 1,944 people were reported killed, more than 2,549 injured, and an undetermined number still missing – perhaps as many as 5,000, according to some estimates. A fifth of the city’s population has also been displaced.
The fierceness and scale of the disaster had many survivors in disbelief how they cheated death. Some still shuddered at the thought of that fateful day, while wondering how they would recover from their trauma. Others have shown resiliency.
When they felt the jolt, the first instinct of mother and daughter, Herne and Satna, was to get up and run like the others. Satna injured her right arm after falling three times while running with Herne, as the ground continued to sway underneath them. They said that during the tremor, the soil cracked, and fountains of water started bursting out.
In fear, they rushed towards the bridge, the nearest high ground. But they could not move further. The deck of the bridge had collapsed in the earthquake, its two yellow arches twisted and toppled to one side.
Suddenly, they heard people screaming, “Water! Water!” When they turned towards the sea, they saw the roaring waves. What they did not know was how high it would be. When a tsunami nears land, it starts to slow down, but it also increases in height as its largest waves crest.
“This must be what Apocalypse looks like,” Herne thought to herself, recalling the moment to Al Jazeera.
With her left arm, Herne wrapped her mother in an embrace, while locking her right arm as mightily as she could to the bridge railing. Her mother also held on tight to the steel. They were partially protected by the concrete parapet, a low, thick wall along the edge of the bridge.
The torrent of water reached the bridge’s abutment, smashing those who sought shelter there, even though it was almost two storeys high. Herne and Satna turned away as the water hit them. At one point, both recalled being underwater, with the current threatening to drag them away.
“I could not tell you how much saltwater I swallowed,” Satna told Al Jazeera. “It really felt like it was the end of the world.”
When the waves receded, some of the people who fled with Satna and Herne to the bridge were gone. Further down, they saw bodies, some floating in knee-high water. As darkness fell, they fled from the coast, drenched and barefoot.
As the tsunami was striking Palu’s coast, floods of mud were swallowing up buildings and residents in at least two districts of the city called Balaroa and Petobo. Soil liquefaction takes place when the soil becomes saturated with water, turning it into mud, as a result of intense underground shaking.
Inside their home in Petobo, high school student Pragati Wira Nur Sabina just finished her ablution, the ceremonial act of washing before Muslim prayers, for sunset worship. She had just arrived from school. Pragati’s 17-year-old brother, Muhammad Sultan Prakas, was in the living room.
Pragati, 15, said shortly after the earthquake, she heard roaring sounds outside. As she and her brother ran out, the walls of their home buckled.
She watched with dread as houses in her neighbourhood tumbled, swept away by the flowing mud.
“It looks like a wave in the ocean,” Pragati told Al Jazeera, adding she saw other people running away in horror, shouting their plea to God.
“It sounded like thunder when the houses were crashing on top of each other,” she said. “I just kept on running because the ground was also moving fast towards me.”
“I felt like the ground was chasing after me like a mad dog, because it won’t stop moving,” she said, staring blankly as she recalled her ordeal.
The home Pragati’s parents built was left in ruins and submerged in the mud. It was also uprooted from its original location and shifted 300 metres away, Pragati’s father, Amirudin, told Al Jazeera. Amirudin, a member of Indonesia’s military, and his wife were not home when the disaster struck.
According to authorities, about 1,700 houses were destroyed by liquefaction. The number of casualties remains unknown as some victims are feared to be buried deep under the mud and mountain of debris.
On Sunday, Indonesia‘s disaster management agency announced the government will stop searching for the dead on October 11. The local government also announced that people affected in those areas will be relocated.
‘Psychological first aid’
As the affected areas begin the recovery phase, it is important that the government not only address basic services and infrastructure, but also the psychological impact of the disaster on survivors, Selina Sumbung, head of Save the Children in Indonesia, told Al Jazeera.
“In tragic events such as this, the emotional and psychological impact is very big,” she said, adding children are the most vulnerable among the survivors.
“So, we focus on providing psychological first aid on them.”
Having their homes destroyed and losing family members, many children are struggling to cope with the aftermath of the disaster, Sumbung said, as she appealed for more financial aid.
Save the Children is also helping parents and primary caregivers who have lost their children during the quake.
Faizah is among those who lost a child. Her granddaughter, Hanaya, went missing when the tsunami inundated Palu’s coast. She and her daughter, Fauziah, were seen looking distraught, as they roamed around a Palu park, carrying Hanaya’s photo and pleading with anyone for help. Faizah and Fauziah had been taking care of Hanaya, whose mother died during childbirth.
The national and local government has also set up trauma centres in Palu. But for most of the survivors, they are left to look after themselves.
Satna and Herne, the food vendors who survived the tsunami, have decided to leave Palu with their entire family and settle temporarily in Surabaya, in East Java, to try to cope with their nightmare.
“I still don’t know how we survived. When the waves were about to hit us, I just prayed, ‘It’s all up to you, oh God’,” Satna said, as they sat at the Palu airport on Saturday, waiting for their flight.
Three days after the disaster, Herne went back to the Ponulele bridge to size up the damage. She told Al Jazeera it was also her way of trying to rid the nightmare experience from her mind.
Standing at the edge of the collapsed bridge, Herne said she shouted at the top of her voice, “I’m still alive! I beat you out, tsunami!”