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Back from Banda Aceh : An Interview with Earl Wall (continued)

How did the tsunami affect the populations you saw in northern Indonesia?

Earl Wall

EW: Northern Sumatra probably experienced 100,000 deaths, the vast majority of all those killed or injured were in this region. Most of those who died were killed very quickly. But there were a lot of injuries as well. Because of all the debris in the water there were a lot of crushing injuries. It is difficult to imagine how powerful these waves were. It was just huge devastation. Large ships were thrown miles inland. I saw a barge that contained a large power generating plant that was 4 miles from the shore. Many who survived were injured by debris being thrown around in the water. Also, there were many people suffering pneumonia from having seawater in their lungs.


What expertise does the Bloomberg School have in events like these?

EW: One of our projects in the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response is called HOPE, Hospital Preparedness for Emergencies, which has been training hospital administrators in five project countries, including both Indonesia and India. The HOPE curriculum emphasizes all the skills needed in a catastrophic emergency, such as medical triage, communications, disaster preparedness planning, coordinating with police and other first responders, even information on basic structural engineering to help administrators determine if their building is safe to inhabit after being damaged. One of the instructors in the program, and several of the graduates, are Indonesian. These graduates were able to help organize the indigenous response to the catastrophe in northern Sumatra, Indonesia, where the devastation was the worst.
 
How did this experience differ from your previous work in regions facing crisis?

EW: Just the reality of the incredible number of folks who were killed. There are bodies everywhere. Disposing of them becomes a huge problem.  It’s terribly inhuman to see people everywhere who have died suddenly and violently. In Banda Aceh there are many of thousands who died along with all their family members and friends, so no one is looking for them. Even two weeks after the event there were still many many bodies in need of burial. And the process of removing the debris and recovering the last of the bodies is probably going to take months, if not years.
 
What did you learn on this trip?

EW: What I found very impressive was the amount of self-help that was occurring without outside assistance. I’m talking about the kinds of things done by the local people themselves. They very quickly organized communal kitchens to feed people, and created makeshift shelters for those who had lost their homes. The other thing that I found very impressive was how competent the Indonesian military has been in providing humanitarian relief. They were responsible for a great deal of high quality relief work in a very short time.
 
Are military organizations suited to provide disaster relief?

EW: In my experience, the NGOs and the military don’t work well together. In Kosovo, in Afghanistan and now in Iraq there is a very uneasy relationship between the two. But what I learned in this disaster is that there is no substitute for working with the military. They had, for instance, what seemed to be hundreds of helicopters. By contrast, the largest NGO active in the field was CARE International, which was able to rent, and only for a period of time, just one helicopter. I think the Indonesian military was improvising as it went along, but they had a tremendous advantage in that they had the equipment and the supplies and a disciplined staff that would do what it was told. They were able to mobilize very quickly and bring aid in large quantities to where it was needed most. 

Did you observe any similarities in this situation to your previous work in places like Kosovo and the West Bank?

EW: It seems like the poorest people always suffer the most. Aceh is the poorest province in Indonesia, and it was the hardest hit. Plus it’s a region in the middle of a civil war. Also, it’s the rainy season, and flooding can be expected.  These people have had a number of difficulties to deal with before this.
 
Could you tell that Aceh Province in Indonesia is in the midst of a war?

EW: The first night I was there I could hear a gunfight between the army and members of the Free Aceh movement. And I heard from my hosts that the military’s fear is that a number of guns and weapons have been stolen by the rebels during the catastrophe. Indonesia is a Muslim country, but Aceh in particular is known to be more conservative than the rest of the country. You will typically see women in head scarves, which is less common in Jakarta and Bali and other areas. But I didn’t sense their religion was a source of tension. There was talk in the Indonesian papers about the fact that there were orphans left by the tsunami who might be adopted by non-Muslims. This seemed to be a very sensitive issue, but it wasn’t talked about in Aceh. People there were more involved in trying to get their lives back together.

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Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna Lowe at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu. Photographs of Earl Wall are available upon request.