AEG NEWS – June 2016 (Vol. 59, No. 2)

Ron Harris

A Story About Saving Lives
Why Indonesia?

This rare moment of communicating directly and effectively with those in harm’s way is beauty from ashes. The people of the Indonesian region have suffered huge losses from natural hazards, as much or more than any other place on Earth. Yet, only recently have they been able to understand these hazards in a way that helps them prepare in advance for the worst nature can bring.

My role to educate and empower those in harm’s way of natural hazards in Indonesia started without me knowing it. During my first scientific expedition to Indonesia (1987) I was able to learn the language and live among the local people for several months. I trained many of the locals to recognize geological hazards and show them how to build a resilient community. This approach has become known as liberation science. Although most of my expeditions to Indonesia focused on academic questions it was obvious that the local people were in harm’s way of many natural hazards and did not know it or what to do about it.

Most of Indonesia is an active tectonic maelstrom and presents one of the most diverse natural laboratories of active tectonic processes on the planet. It is also one of the most densely populated places on the planet. This dangerous combination is amplified by an overall lack of awareness of natural hazards in the region.

Year after year of observing the plight of those in harm’s way motivated me to make natural disaster mitigation the focus of my research. This transition was hastened by a comment I overhead my son make to one of his friends. He explained that his dad “is a ‘doctor,’ but not the kind that helps people.”

Although my first reaction was one of, “if he only knew,” the comment caused me to reflect upon the underlying intent of my passion for what I did. In my son’s mind there was an obvious disconnect between my research and the basic needs of others, which I eventually came to realize for myself.

Within a few months I crafted a proposal to the U.S. Department of State identifying a new direction of geological research that still has few practitioners; it is called natural hazards.

Finding a way to connect my passion for geological research more directly with the needs of others was not a difficult stretch. Geology influences everyone on the planet everyday, especially in Indonesia, where more than one hundred million people live in harm’s way of explosive volcanoes, gigantic earthquakes and tsunamis. Because of Indonesia’s unique setting, it is the ideal testing ground to see if hazardous geophysical events can be forecast in order to save lives.

At the time I wrote the proposal I fully accepted this illusion that successful forecasting is all that is needed to save lives, and all I am responsible for as a geoscientist. My proposal was funded by the U.S. Department of State through a Fulbright Research Fellowship to Indonesia. This fellowship also provided funds for my family to travel with me and see for themselves how the geological sciences may directly help those in harm’s way.

A Year of Living Dangerously

My first glimpse of the scale of the problem of natural disasters in Indonesia came as I teamed with Indonesian colleagues and many students to conduct geological investigations and compile historical records of past natural disasters.

Over the past 25 years we have completed 18 expeditions to various parts of Indonesia and translated hundreds of records kept mostly by Dutch colonists of the major earthquakes and tsunamis in Indonesia as far back as the 16th century. We found evidence of more than 1,000 earthquakes—130 of which were destructive, and at least 95 tsunamis between 1600 and 2010.

The records indicate that earthquakes left many cities in “rubble heaps” multiple times. Several tsunamis are recorded with run-up heights greater than 15 meters, which engulfed and washed away many coastal communities.

One new problem is that the population has increased ten times what it was the last time most of these natural disasters happened. Our geohazards research resulted in two publications that warned of reoccurring geophysical events and identified some of the most vulnerable places.

The Sumatran region was identified as one of the most likely places for the next large (magnitude 8+) earthquake and tsunami.

Our papers warned of hazardous regions in central Java where smaller, more frequent earthquakes occur and are commonly followed by devastating volcanic eruptions. We specifically warned of the dire consequences of a major eruption of Merapi volcano near Yogyakarta, based on data from nearby archeological sites.

When major earthquakes and tsunamis, and even major eruptions, will happen is unknowable. However, historical and geological records provide details over a large enough time window to recognize where these events are likely to reoccur.

The Beginning of the Earthquake Storm

Two years after the November 2004 publication, I was presenting about our earthquake and tsunami forecasts at a university in Dili, the capital city of Timor Leste. Timor is one of the places we warned could be next to experience a large earthquake and tsunami.

During the talk, I presented our research indicating that enough tectonic strain energy had already accumulated in the Timor region to produce a magnitude 7 earthquake. I mentioned that because most of the active faults in the region are underwater, the earthquake would likely produce a tsunami.

To demonstrate this, I flicked a glass of water with my finger and noted that the earthquake would cause the ocean to slosh onto the land just like the water in the glass sloshed onto the podium. Few, if any, of those in attendance appeared to take me seriously.

The next morning after the talk, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck near Dili and caused a tsunami that flooded parts of the city including the university where I spoke just hours before. I was bathing at the time the earthquake hit. Suddenly water began sloshing out of the container I was using. At the same time the unreinforced masonry walls of the bathroom started moving in a wave-like motion. Fortunately, the building held and I survived the awkward situation.

This earthquake, however, was the beginning of a “seismic storm” that is still raging today in Indonesia. Within a few weeks of the earthquake near Dili, a gigantic segment of the boundary between the Asian and Australian plates ruptured off the northwest coast of Sumatra.

Pressure had been building along the plate boundary for hundreds of years without any large earthquakes, which is why we drew attention to it in our article. The most dangerous seismic gaps in Indonesia exist in populated regions of western Sumatra, south-central Java, and Timor.

The entire sixteen hundred kilometer length of the Sumatra fault system has not slipped significantly for 130–150 years. Since this time, seven to eight meters of potential slip have accumulated and will most likely be released suddenly to produce a magnitude 8.0 + event.

We were not the only scientists to forecast this event, so it was not a surprise to the geological community.

Unfortunately, it was a surprise to those in harm’s way.

The entire northern Sumatran and Andaman Islands, part of the Asian Plate which had been pushed eastward for hundreds of years, lurched back to the west more than 20 meters at nearly the speed of sound. The sudden release of this much pent-up energy ruptured a 1,600 km section of the plate boundary producing a magnitude 9.3 earthquake.

This earthquake is the second largest ever recorded, and much larger than what we forecast. The rupture started near the northwest part of Sumatra and propagated northward at around 3 km/sec to the western shores of Burma. Even at this speed it took nine minutes for the rupture to make the 1,600 km journey.

The nine minutes of shaking was so intense in the region that no one could stand. The earthquake itself caused several buildings to collapse and killed hundreds of people.

However, because the plate rupture occurred at an ocean depth of more than 3,000 meters, huge amounts of water was displaced, which produced the largest earthquake-generated tsunami in recorded history. The tsunami waves carried some of the immense forces released by the earthquake to nearly every shoreline on the globe—the closer the shoreline to the epicenter, the higher the waves.

There were at least 286,000 fatalities.

Map of Sumatra and part of Java with the estimated areas that ruptured to form giant earthquakes between 1795 and 1994.
Same map with the major earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that have happened since we published our paper in 1997. Nearly 50 years had passed without an earthquake > magnitude 8.2 anywhere on Earth. Since the end of 2004 there have been 5 earthquakes > magnitude 8.2 in western Indonesian alone. A similar scenario occurred in the mid-1800s throughout Indonesia.

Lessons Learned from the 2004 Event

It is difficult to try to express my feelings as I watched video footage of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami event and received updates from friends and colleagues in Indonesia who were impacted by the destruction.

My son was right—I was still a “doctor” that did not help anyone. Even though we had successfully forecast this event, it made no difference to those actually in harm’s way. Most did not even know what a tsunami is or how to protect themselves from it.

What adds to the tragedy is that it took an event of this scale to finally convince us of the uselessness of forecasting if those in harm’s way are not aware of the hazard or have no way of protecting themselves.

Immediately after the epic 2004 event, the press crafted a story that scientists had “predicted” the event and no one had listened to the warnings. Someone was to blame and it had to be the people of Indonesia.

I was interviewed several times on television, radio, and for newspaper articles. One time, cameras and reporters from NBC, ABC, and FOX News were all set up at the same time in the conference room of the Geology Department at BYU. Instead of the story they were hoping to broadcast about how clever I was, what they got was a teary-eyed confession of the truth—that it did not matter how good our forecast was or where it was published.

Those in harm’s way had no idea what was going to happen or how to respond.

I left the communication and implementation to “someone else.” Now I realize that I am the “someone else”!

AGU Statement

Within two weeks of the epic Sumatran earthquake and tsunami the American Geophysical Union (AGU) published a statement addressing the need for broadening the responsibility of the geoscience community for all aspects of natural disaster prevention. The statement makes the following points:

  • Make fundamental research and monitoring of natural hazards a higher funding priority
  • Disseminate the relevant results to the public, especially vulnerable communities
  • Implement effective multidisciplinary mitigation strategies worldwide

This statement, the first to my knowledge made by a major geologic organization, articulated what I was already feeling—that I had to do more than just better forecasting and monitoring.

It does not help that few, if any, funding agencies have adopted the AGU statement into their request for proposal descriptions. What agency is supposed to communicate which natural hazards are likely to happen to those in harm’s way and help them implement disaster prevention strategies?

Most agencies that have anything to do with natural disasters are dedicated to relief with a focus on helping versus minimizing victims.

Currently, funding that includes the full spectrum of natural disaster prevention activities has to come from non-conventional sources, which translates into setting up non-profit organizations or some other non-governmental organization funded by mostly private money.

To address this problem I set up a nonprofit organization called “In Harm’s Way.” The purpose of In Harm’s Way is simple in concept—to focus on the second and third parts of the AGU statement, the parts few scientists have traditionally considered their responsibility. Most important is to learn from the mistakes and experience of the past—to do what was not done before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster—tell those in harm’s way what is likely to happen and help them get ready.

Through this approach hazards forecasting research joins with hazards education and preparedness, with the ultimate goal of saving lives and resources.

Recurring Earthquake Storm

One of the most interesting discoveries of our research of historical earthquakes and tsunamis in the Indonesian region is how these events commonly cluster in time and place.

In other words, the rate of these events is not constant and the locations are not random. Various plate boundary segments of the Indonesian region experience several large earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, then set quietly for 30–50 years before another burst of intense activity.

The gigantic 2004 Sumatran earthquake released so much energy that it initiated another mega-cluster of events throughout the whole region. Three months after the 9.3 earthquake, the plate boundary segment immediately to the south of it ruptured to produce a magnitude 8.7 earthquake and large tsunami that claimed thousands of lives.

Computer simulation of the 2004 South Asian Tsunami about one hour after the magnitude 9.3 earthquake. The red areas are positive waves and the blue areas are negative waves (sea withdrawal). The first positive waves struck Banda Ache within 20 minutes of the earthquake. Whereas, it took three hours for the waves to reach Thailand to the east and four hours to reach India to the west. Still, no warnings were issued.

In 2006, a mid-sized earthquake (M = 6.3) struck central Java, killing around 6000 and displaced nearly a half a million people.

Immediately after the event, nearby Merapi volcano erupted killing many people. The string of events is nearly identical to what we found in historical records and warned would likely reoccur in central Java.

Ruins around the only home standing after a 10-meter-high tsunami struck the coast of Java. The tsunami reached the upper floor of the three-story home in the distance.

The collisional plate boundary near densely populated Java has some of the highest strain rates in the world which is manifest by more frequent moderate earthquake events (M 5.5–7.5). Although these moderate events are of lesser magnitude they pose a greater threat due to the more frequent devastation and disruption they inflict.

Poorly regulated development in these zones of high seismic flux poses a significant threat not only to the many cities with unfavorable site characteristics, but also densely populated rural regions that have rapidly expanded into seismically unstable hillsides and cities along shorelines vulnerable to tsunami destruction. Most buildings in these regions are incapable of withstanding even mild horizontal ground motions.

As witnessed in recent moderate seismic events a magnitude 6.4 quake near densely-populated regions with weak dwellings can cause thousands of deaths, billions of dollars of damage, sever gas and water lines, damage critical facilities and cause sudden economic collapse. These types of damage initiate new disasters.

Two months after the seismic and volcanic disaster in densely populated Yogyakarta, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake struck offshore to the south of the city causing a large tsunami that killed hundreds of people.

In 2007 a magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck near Jakarta, a city of around 15 million people. Fortunately, the earthquake was 280 km deep and resulted in little damage.

Two months later a series of earthquakes of magnitudes 8.5, 7.9 and 7.1 struck the SW coast of Sumatra causing more fatalities.

In 2008, three aftershocks between magnitude 7.0–7.5 caused fatalities.

In 2009, there were four destructive earthquakes between magnitude 7.0 and 7.9 that accounted for more than 2500 fatalities in Sumatra.

In 2010 there were three more earthquakes between magnitude 7.2 and 7.9 that accounted for hundreds of fatalities.

A few hours before the 7.9 event, Merapi, a volcano in central Java, exploded with an intensity that had not happened since 1870. Hundreds of fatalities resulted, but it could have been much worse as close to 350,000 people were evacuated immediately before the eruption.

In 2012, a magnitude 8.6 earthquake struck off the coast of northern Sumatra, which was followed two hours later by a magnitude 8.2 earthquake near the same location.

Before the 2004 earthquake, there had not been a seismic event greater than magnitude 8.5 for nearly 39 years.

The next seven years after the 2004 event, four earthquakes larger than 8.5 happened in western Indonesia alone. It has been a decade of utter seismic terror, and more is likely to happen before the seismic mega-cluster ends.

More troubling, is the greater rate of fatalities than in the past. Indonesia has had earthquake fatalities in 25 of the past 26 years. The previous record was only two consecutive years.

Prevention Pays Off

If the earthquake storm in Indonesia was not enough, on March 3, 2011, there was a replay of the 2004 Sumatra event, only this time it happened in prevention-minded Japan.

Even though the size of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan was comparable to the 2004 event in Indonesia, and the population density nearly the same, one person died in Japan for every ten who died in Indonesia.

Japan’s preparedness saved thousands of lives.

Tsunami is a Japanese word, and the people of Japan are well aware of what it is and how to respond. Tsunami evacuation sites are common, and most people in coastal communities had participated in tsunami evacuation drills before the 2011 event. Preparedness works!

Indonesia's Next Generation

Indonesia does not have the capital resources to build resiliency like Japan, but it has the human resources.

A mandatory scouting program in Indonesia, known as Pramuka, involves boys and girls ages 12–19 in activities dedicated to Siap dan Waspada, which translates to “readiness and awareness.”

In 2008, Carolus Prasetyadi and I were successful in linking our disaster mitigation activities with Pramuka. Since then we have led disaster prevention training seminars to groups of boy and girl scouts and their leaders in many of the islands of Indonesia. On some islands, special scout jamborees were held for the purpose of helping the scouts make a hazard map of their island, identify the most vulnerable areas and evacuation sites.

Pramuka scouts making geological hazards map of their island

The goal for working with Pramuka and government leaders is to help them build the capacity to conduct their own natural disaster prevention jamborees and activities throughout Indonesia.

Auditorium filled to capacity with Pramuka in uniform at one of the natural disaster prevention training jamborees held in Ambon, Indonesia. Volunteer geologist Rachel Dunn and I stand next to the head master of the school.

Julian Fretha Saves Thousands of Lives

In 2012, one of the Indonesian geologists of the WAVES Team, Nova Roosmawati, and I worked with government disaster management leaders on densely populated Ambon Island to try to mitigate the hazards of landslides threatening many neighborhoods in the city.

Two days before we arrived an earthquake had caused a landslide that killed several people.

Many families abandoned their homes and were living as refugees in local schools.

We were able to train one of the government workers, Julian Fretha, how to identify unstable slopes and other hazards to prevent the disasters from happening.

After we left, Julian shared with us many success stories about how she had trained others in her office to make prevention presentations at schools, churches and other public meetings. She gave more than 40 presentations herself, including 10 seminars at various universities in Ambon and other islands.

When we met Julian in Ambon during our 2013 expedition, she was with the disaster prevention team she had assembled for Ambon. The team consists of the resident geophysicist from the Geophysical Survey of Indonesia (forecasting), the head of the Office for Social and Cultural Affairs for the island (communication), the head of the Red Cross, and the regional head of the Civil Defense Agency (Implementation).

Julian told an amazing account about a disaster averted due to her vigilance with implementing disaster prevention strategies. Here is her story. Heavy rains during July 2013 caused unprecedented landslides and flooding. One landslide was so large that it dammed a major river on the island above the city of Negri Lima. A lake formed behind the landslide that threatened to break the natural dam and flood the city downstream.

The flood destruction zone where homes in the city of Negri Lima were washed away by the 30 July 2013 flood.

Expecting the worst, Julian helped the citizens of Negri Lima to establish evacuation routes and conduct evacuation drills. She designed evacuation signs herself and hired local craftsmen to build and post the signs.

Dead jungle high-water mark from the lake that formed behind the landslide

One of several evacuation signs designed by Julian that guided the successful evacuation of more than 2,500 people

A few days after the drills, the dam broke suddenly and sent a 15-meter-high wall of water down the valley. The people of Negri Lima only had seven minutes to evacuate before 425 homes in the city were completely washed away. Because the people of Negri Lima knew what was happening, and had practiced where to go, nearly all of those in harm’s way were able to evacuate to safety.

Approximately 2,500 lives were saved.

Aerial view of Lima before and after the dam catastrophically failed. The flood reached the city in ten minutes and swept away 258 homes.

We visited the site of the disaster and the large refuge camps adjacent to where the Negri Lima used to be. Several of the people in the refuge camp commented that the people of Negri Lima owed their lives to Julian and her commitment to disaster prevention.

See original article: 2016-AEG_News_June_2016.web_

Other Success Stories
Coastal City of Pacitan is Buying In

One of the success stories of the types of community-based prevention interventions we conduct at the local level is the coastal city of Pacitan, Java.  Geological and social scientists, including 15 students, conducted forecasting, communication and implementation studies in Pacitan for nearly 1 month in 2016.  Shortly after the USA contingent of the group returned home we received a posting about the tsunami awareness parade the people of Pacitan organized and conducted throughout their community.  The bikes represent a tsunami wave sweeping through the city.  Each bike and the riders are decorated with 20-20-20 principle, which we introduced to them, but now they have taken it to the next level.

Cherry-Hill Elementary School in Orem, UT

by Grant Willis, UGA President

Recently I was invited to join Dr. Ron Harris, structural geologist at BYU, to tour the new Cherry Hills Elementary School in Orem.  It all started about five years ago when Dr. Harris was invited to give a presentation on earthquake safety;  Ron has given many earthquake talks to groups in the Utah Valley area.  The talk triggered one parent, Patti Henwood, to find out how safe her children’s elementary school was. 

At first she was stumped every way she turned.  Patti contacted the School Board, School Building officials, Orem City officials, and even local engineering firms trying to learn more.  Most didn’t seem to know much, couldn’t find any reports or studies, or otherwise brushed her off as best they could.  But that just made her more determined.  She learned that the original Cherry Hills School was built in 1965, that it had all the warning signs of poor seismic design, and that building codes were not enforced in school construction until the mid1970s.  To make a long story short, Patti attended well over 100 meetings, served two terms as president of the local PTA while focusing on this issue, organized many neighborhood meetings and awareness campaigns, prepared signs and fliers that parents would see when they came to parent back-to-school night, and talked to anyone who would listen. 

Finally, after three years of relentless effort, for the first time, Alpine School District put school replacement due to earthquake risk on their bond election ahead of new school construction!  And it was not just one school, but two – a parent of children in the neighboring Westmore Elementary School heard about the Cherry Hills effort, knew that their own school was of similar age and design, and fought to get their school replaced as well.  

Patti had the pleasure of being present when the original Cherry Hills School was demolished.  She said that the trackhoe operator expected that he would have to take the walls down piece by piece.  To his surprise, when he lightly touched the first wall with his bucket, the entire wall collapsed into a massive pile of rubble!  The only steel that could be seen was short stubs of rebar that stuck up from the footings about six inches into the first row of bricks.

Today, two years later, over 1000 children have two seismically safe schools to attend, thanks largely to the efforts of just one concerned parent and one geology professor.  Hopefully, we can all go out there and make a difference!

Through the efforts of In Harm’s Way and Patti Henwood (parent of school students), Cherry Hill Elementary was rebuilt to seismic code.