Mentawai: surfers are offering a helping hand

The remoteness of the Mentawai islands has proven to be the main difficulty in getting aid to victims of the October 26 tsunami. Modern warning and rescue techniques are ill-adapted to the tiny fishing villages with no roads, electricity satellite or cell-phone coverage. In the aftermath of the disaster, villagers are finding help from an unlikely source: surfers.

Over twenty coastal villages of the remote Mentawai archipelago were either totally destroyed or severely damaged by the tsunami. Macaronis Resort has been totally destroyed. The latest official death toll stands at 454 but the exact number of casualties in the most isolated villages remains unknown.

“Surfers, with their small boats and in-depth knowledge of where each village is, can really help in providing immediate relief to disasters.”

The Mentawais, have long been a favorite travel location for surfers and nature-lovers around the world. Frenchman Gilles Bordessoule is the founder of Mentawai Adventure, a sustainable tourism initiative that operates the Siloinak Surf Resort. Along with fellow tourism professionals, he is actively looking for ways in which the small community of surfers can help the populations of the affected areas to better prepare themselves to survive earthquakes and tsunamis. 3 actions are now considered: fast reliefs` delivery system, a tsunami warning system adapted to the remoteness of the area, the building of para-seismic shelters.

Delivering reliefs

The example of the Mentawai Tsunami shows that bringing first help to tsunami or earthquakes victims is a major problem when there are no roads leading up to these villages, and rough seas and strong winds make accessing them by boat very difficult.

As during the September 2009 Padang Earthquake, boats and planes have very soon after the disaster delivered tons of emergency aid to the rare harbours or airports in the area, but there was a lack of small vessels capable of navigating the shallow waters that lead right up to the beaches in front of the villages. Crossing the coral reefs was a major problem. This is where the surfers can really help, with their in-depth knowledge of the location of every beach, village and possible landing. The Mentawai Surf Charter Boat’s Association (AKSSB) has been very active in this field, and has sent six small vessels. A ship chartered by the American surfer Matt Georges (Last Mile Operation) left Padang only 36 hours after the tremor, loaded with food and medical supplies, anchoring in front of the most isolated hamlets, sometimes ferrying food on surfboards when even the tenders could not safely beach.

Tsunami warnings: on-time information saves lives

Although an alert was broadcast on national TV stations 10 minutes after the earthquake hit off the coast of Sumatra, most of the Mentawai coastal villages did not receive it because they have no electrical power, phone land lines, television sets, satellite or cell phone coverage. The most convenient way to transmit a tsunami warning to these populations would be to use the Mentawai-language radio frequency broadcasted from Padang that they listen to daily, using small battery powered radios. Siloinak Surf Resort is approaching this local radio station to offer help to establish a permanent protected communication channel with the Indonesian tsunami warning agencies. This will allow them to broadcast a tsunami warning in some minutes.

The next step will be to provide each village-head with a solar-powered radio that can always stay on, day and night, and be used as a tsunami warning device. Ideally, each village should also be donated a solar-powered Indonesian satellite phone PASTI, the rates of which are affordable even to poor fishermen. They would be operated by the village grocery-store, church or village chief, and could be used as an advanced warning system managed by the population themselves. Siloinak Surf Resort is trying to raise money, buy and distribute these phones to the villages.

Para-seismic communal houses

The experience of the last Mentawai tsunami shows that the populations have had to wait sometimes 5 days under heavy storms the arrival of rescue teams providing them with tents. A realistic solution to increase the safety of the population after a disaster is the construction by the villagers themselves of a communal house, called Uma that will provide a shelter after disaster strikes. In addition it could be used for ceremonies, weddings, social gatherings, enhancing the vanishing Mentawai culture. Built using the traditional Mentawai architecture and materials, such houses can sustain a Richter 8 earthquake at the epicenter, as Nias 2005 earthquake has shown. These Uma would have to be located as near the village as possible but at a minimum of 20 meters above sea level or 1000 meters inland. A 20x8 meter shelter, which can safely house over 100 people, costs only 5,000 USD to build, using materials provided by the forest.”

A drastic policy would be to relocate all the Mentawai coastal villages 20 meters above sea level or 1000 meters inland, but this decision belongs to the Indonesian Administration and may be not easy to implement, their inhabitants being mostly fishermen who need to stay near the shores to secure their boats, fishing equipments and outboard engines. The scope and the cost of this undertaking is well above the possibility of any surfer association, but the building of parasismic Umas should be considered even if the villages were relocated.