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Quake City Bounces Back Stronger, One Year On (The Jakarta Post)

Dessy Sagita - 29 September

Padang. Deswandi recalls the day his world shook.

A year ago today, the teacher was leading a sports class at a Padang high school when the ground started trembling. As soon as the earth stood still, he jumped on his motorcycle and raced home to check on his wife and youngest child.

Along the way he was stunned by scenes of destruction and despair.

His hometown, the capital of West Sumatra, had been paralyzed by a 7.9-magnutide earthquake.

"I saw collapse buildings and dark thick smoke was everywhere. Everything was so chaotic," said Deswandi, 40.

As he approached his home in Tarantang village, Lubuk Kilangan subdistrict, he was shocked to see that most of the houses, including his own, had been knocked down.

"It was a new housing complex. The developer had finished it about six months before the earthquake, but more than 90 percent of the houses, including my house, were severely damaged," Deswandi said.

When the dust settled, the magnitude of the catastrophe became evident: more than 1,100 lives were lost and thousands of buildings - homes, schools, and other public facilities - were rubble.

But Deswandi's family was spared. 

After the quake, Deswandi set out on a mission to promote quake-proof houses, joining IDEP, and Indonesian nonprofit that seeks to make sure communities are better prepared for disasters.

Poor construction is one of the main reasons cited for the massive destruction caused by the quake.

AusAID’s senior representative for Indonesia, Jacqui De Lacy, said a survey by 70 engineers and students in West Sumatra found that houses built without basic reinforcement saw five times more damage and were 10 times more likely to have collapsed than reinforced masonry houses. 

“This was why more than 119,000 houses were destroyed by the West Sumatra earthquake,” she said on Wednesday during the launch of rumahamangempa.net, a Web site for a campaign funded by the Australia-Indonesia Facility for Disaster Reduction, established to educate the public about how to build quake-proof houses. 

West Sumatra’s deputy governor, Kasim Baca, said most victims in last year’s earthquake died because of collapsed buildings.

Today, Deswandi is the head of the “Build Back Better” campaign initiated by AusAID, which is rebuilding the houses in Tarantang village so they can better withstand earthquakes.

“All 106 houses in this complex were poorly constructed,” he said. “The foundations were not deep enough and the iron used for the house frames was not strong enough.”

He said the provincial government was considering replicating the program in other areas. 

When the Jakarta Globe visited the village, more than 60 percent of the houses had already been rebuilt or fixed using improved construction methods, and the rest were being worked on. 

Kasim said it would be impossible to build a house that was 100 percent quake resistant. 

However, it was crucial to raise public awareness about construction techniques to reduce the number of victims when the next earthquake struck. 

“Earthquakes cannot be prevented, but the impact can be reduced by carefully planning building materials, structures and construction,” he said. 

Teddy Boen, a well-known structural engineer and a consultant for rumahamangempa.net who has been monitoring West Sumatra’s reconstruction, said that many damaged houses could actually be fixed using retrofitting methods. 

“There are a lot of houses which can easily be fixed, strengthened and restored at a relatively lower cost, but many people prefer to demolish their damaged house and build a new one that still cannot withstand earthquakes,” he said. 

Deswandi said convincing people to build stronger houses was not easy. 

He said the central government had provided cash for earthquake survivors to rebuild their houses — Rp 15 million ($1,700) for those who suffered major damage and Rp 10 million for moderate damage. 

“But some people are still trying to cheat by buying cheaper materials that are not suitable for strong construction,” Deswandi said. “I constantly remind them that they should not play with their lives.” 

Attitudes, though, are slowly changing. 

Ning, a housewife whose house was damaged in the earthquake, said she did not mind spending extra money to retrofit her damaged house and make it stronger. 

“I realize that I live in a disaster-prone area, so even if I have to spend more money I will no longer have to live in fear of when another massive earthquake might strike,” she said.