The Other Big Earthquake

Project Sungai Geringging

While the world focuses on Haiti, relief workers are still salvaging materials and building shelters for the survivors of West Sumatra’s back to back 7.9 and 7.0 earthquakes of last fall, which affected 1,250,000 people, and killed or injured several thousand. Two hospitals and many schools crumbled, and 279,000 homes were damaged. Hands On Disaster Relief has extended Project Sungai Geringging until April, and I’m on my way there to help.

Why Sumatra, and why now? Well, as you may know, I spent the last part of 2009 pushing to finish the 4th and final draft of Ordinary Stories of Magic, Adventure, and Chocolate. Three days before the New Year, I finished the 3-year+ long project and now I’m free to refocus my energy in other places. Humanitarian work, activism, travel, and writing (and my friends!) are generally what inspire me to get out of bed in the morning, and having lost my own home in the 1993 Northridge quake, I feel especially moved when I see the photos of people in front of the remains of their homes. I remember the huge difference that community support and aid made in my life when I was the one left homeless. So, since I definitely want to get out from behind this computer for a bit, and since there’s a glut of people itching to go to Haiti, I decided on Project Sungai Geringging.

It’s not a glamorous project. The media are long gone, the initial adrenaline of a post-disaster landscape has fizzled into simple days of hard work, and in the humid evening volunteers shower with buckets and cold water. The team works with community members to take down buildings deemed too dangerous to inhabit or rebuild—salvaging reusable windows, doors, wood, bricks and stone—to create clean slabs to rebuild on. Volunteers chick the concrete off of reusable bricks in the sweltering equatorial heat. The newest part of the program is the building of earthquake-resistant transitional shelters out of timber frames, plastered concrete walls, and galvanized iron roofs.The two-room structures can serve as comfortable and safe homes for years.

In their spare time they’ve developed a ‘Safe Deconstruction’ community awareness poster; created earthquake safety procedures, evacuation plans and drills, and disaster education activities for children; built 30 meters of concrete footpath at a remote water catchment/pumping facility; and hand-scrubbed the water plant storage tanks.

Honestly, I’m a bit nervous. I’m not accustomed to the intense heat and humidity, and it was only last September that the latest recurrence of my vertebrae and shoulder injuries left me largely incapacitated for three days. I hope I can keep up with long days of construction work. We’ll be in a very rural area, and Sumatra continues to have major aftershocks, including a 5.1 just a few days ago. But I’m going to give it a try. When I get back I’ll start putting together outlines of my new book ideas. Til then, it’ll be good to get my hands dirty.