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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Indonesia, an earthquake, landslides and homes ‘flat to the earth’

Rescue workers lifting a body in Cianjur, West Java province, Indonesia, on Tuesday.

By Dera Menra Sijabat and Victoria Kim

Schoolhouses were reduced to skeletal, warped frames, thousands of homes were uprooted from their foundations and an entire village was engulfed by a landslide in the wake of a devastating earthquake in a mountainous region of Indonesia.

The scope of the destruction and aftershocks of Monday’s earthquake that killed at least 268 complicated the ongoing rescue effort in Indonesia’s most populous province, as workers were hampered by blocked roads, power outages and stretched medical resources. Anxious family members awaited news of loved ones, some of whom were trapped in villages with weak phone and internet services. Hospitals were overrun, with the injured being treated outside in makeshift tents.

After being trapped by the fallen bricks of her home, Supartika, 47, was eventually rescued by her husband and neighbors. She was taken to the hospital hours later, around 8 p.m. Monday, because of the limited number of ambulances.

“I was shocked. It was very sudden,” said Supartika, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name. Her right hand was broken, right shoulder dislocated and leg cut by broken glass. “My house is flat to the earth.”

The full extent of the damage from Monday’s shallow, magnitude 5.6 earthquake remained unclear with more than 1,000 injured and 150 still missing. Most of the dead had been crushed in collapsed buildings. Many were women and children in homes or schools that crumbled when the earthquake struck in the afternoon, Ridwan Kamil, governor of West Java province, said at a news conference.

Supartika was cooking lunch at home when suddenly she felt the earth beneath her convulse.

Her husband had offered to cook but she had insisted on doing it herself, so he went out to scatter fertilizer on their rice fields instead. In an instant, she found herself kneeling in the darkness of her crumpled home, her arms shielding her head from the crush of a wall that had collapsed around her.

“I fainted for a while,” she said. “When I got my senses back, I found myself still under the debris.”

Earthquakes are a daily occurrence in Indonesia, which sits on the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines along the Pacific Basin. The landslides that follow can be catastrophic in a country where deforestation for farmland and illegal small-scale gold mining operations have contributed to unstable soil conditions.

The sloping, hilly terrain of Cianjur Regency, an agricultural region that was the epicenter of the earthquake, made it especially vulnerable to landslides, said Ridwan, the governor. Damage to homes appeared worse in villages farther out of the city and deeper into the hills, where low-slung, shoddily built dwellings dot the landscape.

President Joko Widodo of Indonesia on Tuesday visited Cianjur, the city closest to the epicenter, pledging to provide aid to victims to rebuild and to improve construction standards.

“It’s important to have quake-proof buildings,” he said. “We’re focusing first on opening road access in landslide-affected areas. I’ve instructed that evacuation and rescue of buried victims be prioritized.”

More than 58,000 residents were displaced from their homes, according to officials. Many of the injured were being treated in makeshift tents outside overwhelmed hospitals in Cianjur. Some victims were being transferred to nearby regions because of a shortage of medical professionals, Ridwan said.

More than 22,000 homes were damaged, at least 6,500 of them severely, officials said. In the Cianjur area, 13 schools and 10 office buildings were also hit, according to emergency officials.

Around 2.5 million people live in Cianjur, a fertile area of waterfalls and rivers that gets three crops of rice a year compared with the standard two. The regency, covering an area slightly larger than Rhode Island, sees frequent flooding, volcanic eruptions and other calamities. On Tuesday, next to a road with traffic inching behind excavators trying to reach remote affected areas, a yellow sign warned: “Be careful, prone to landslide.”

At the site of a landslide in the remote area of Cugenang, the side of a mountain looked as if it had been cleanly sliced off. Rescue dogs were sniffing Tuesday afternoon for what officials estimated could be dozens of people still buried under mounds of rust-colored soil.

Resna Darmayana, 48, a fried rice seller and a volunteer at the fire department from the nearby city of Bandung, said rescue workers at the site felt at least four strong aftershocks, delaying their efforts because they were required by protocol to stop and stay away from the hills when the tremors occur. The area experienced more than 120 aftershocks since Monday.

Resna said at least a dozen businesses were buried under several meters of soil, and that it would take the rescuers days to clear the collapsed hillside. As dusk neared Tuesday, they located another body, their 13th, an adult man.

According to Indonesia’s Meteorological, Climatological, and Geophysical Agency, Cianjur and the areas around it have a long history of destructive earthquakes stretching back more than 100 years, including one in July 2000 that destroyed 1,900 homes.

More than 90% of Cugenang was destroyed, according to the governor.

One resident, Uus, 40, had returned home on Monday to fix a leaky roof, leaving his family to manage their roadside eatery during the lunch rush. When the earthquake struck, mud and debris from a nearby hill engulfed the restaurant and several other nearby cafes.

Uus, who also goes by a single name, rushed back to try and save his family. “I screamed out for help,” he said. “I wanted to dig out, but I had no tools.”

“The landslide covered the place. I never thought that hill would collapse,” he added, wiping away tears with a brown sarong around his neck, his feet and the hems of his trousers still muddy from the frantic aftermath of the previous day.

His wife, three children and sister were all killed.

“Oh God, oh God, all of them died, oh God!” he cried, as an official at the hospital delivered the news of his lost family members.

“If I knew that earthquake would come, I would have taken my family home too and not left them in the restaurant. Oh God, you took them all,” Uus said.

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