Padang, Indonesia (AFP) Feb 27, 2008
The striking fact about the beaches along the city of Padang on Indonesia's earthquake-prone Sumatra island is their normality: businesses bustle and carefree children play.
But with the city most likely to bear the brunt of Indonesia's next major quake, measures and infrastructure to protect its 900,000 residents from the fall-out, notably a tsunami, are being installed at a snail's pace, officials say.
Evacuation shelters exist only on paper, roads are yet to be widened to provide escape routes, cash is in short supply and only some residents have been educated about the dangers, they say.
Seismologists have warned that Padang, which lies near the colliding Indo-Australian and Eurasian tectonic plates, is most at risk from a final segment along the zone shifting to unleash a massive amount of energy.
The zone's other segments have already cracked, including a large portion off Aceh, at the tip of Sumatra, which triggered the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
In the last week alone, quakes measuring 7.2 and 7.5 have hit off Sumatra, while last September, the island's Bengkulu province was badly damaged in an 8.4-magnitude quake that killed 23 people -- each quake piling more pressure onto a stretch that must finally snap.
The trouble is nobody knows when that will be.
"We cannot predict when the energy in this area will be released," Fauzi, a seismologist from Indonesia's meteorology agency, told AFP.
"That's why preparedness measures from local government are absolutely needed," he said, adding "a lot of strained energy is still accumulated near the Mentawai islands."
The islands lie just off Padang.
Fauzi Bahar, the mayor of this densely populated coastal city, told AFP that disaster education for the community has been in place for two years now amid rising fears of an imminent disaster.
"We don't know when the disaster is going to happen -- it could be tomorrow or in several months or years," he said.
But being on alert will only get people so far if a quake strikes and sparks a tsunami, with Bahar admitting that evacuation infrastructure in Padang is still virtually non-existent.
About 500,000 people would rush to leave the city if it was rocked by a major quake, he said.
"To evacuate them at the same time, we need to have wider roads," he said, adding that his administration has allocated more than 60 billion rupiah (6.5 million dollars) from its 2008 budget to start construction.
Plans to build evacuation towers face financial obstacles, he said.
"We are still holding discussions with the central government as a tower's construction cost will be very high -- about 100 billion rupiah for one."
The number of towers that might be required has not yet been assessed.
And this lack of preparation in a country and an island which knows how devastating tsunamis can be.
"A tsunami will come, but we can never know when," said Fitria, a mother of two, adding she was haunted by the memory of the 2004 tsunami, which killed 168,000 people in Aceh, at the tip of Sumatra island.
"People will pack the roads in panic and get stuck," she said, recalling her experience in March last year when a powerful quake rocked the city.
There was no tsunami, but traffic ground to a halt as desperate people fled to higher ground in fear of one.
Gamawan Fauzi, West Sumatra's governor, said that the region, in which Padang lies, has long been used to disasters, so this meant "people have become prepared and are on alert" for the expected big one.
"I hope that this year we're able to set up infrastructure that would help with big quakes, such as bridges, evacuation shelters and wider roads," he said.
Patra Rina Dewi, executive director of KOGAMI (the Tsunami Alert Community), a non-government organisation, said that provisions to cope with a quake and tsunami across West Sumatra were far from adequate.
"The cost of mitigation action will be very much less than the cost of inaction," she warned.
Even on the education side, she said only about a quarter of Padang's residents have been involved as she called for a new disaster management centre to be set up to focus on mitigation programmes and infrastructure.
Others are more fatalistic, such as Dahlan, who lives with three children near the beach here.
"As a human being, it's normal to be afraid of a devastating tsunami striking, but we shouldn't panic the moment it really comes... If it's my time to die, I won't be able to run away from it," he told AFP.
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