Always on alert among 17,000 islands

November 25, 2010

A google map shows Indonesia.  REUTERS/Google

Monday, October 25, 2010.

As I sat in Jakarta’s traffic for five hours, trying to rescue my daughter stranded at her school after the worst floods in Indonesia’s capital for years, I thought about how serious a volcanic eruption at Mount Merapi in Java could become. It was coming at a bad time – Jakarta-based staff photographer Beawiharta was also stuck in the jam trying to get to the airport to shoot it. Then I got a call from regional pictures editor Paul Barker. He told me there had been a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia. Wow!!!

I read on a local disaster monitoring agency via my Blackberry that it was a quake on the Mentawai islands, off the western coast of Sumatra. Being a photojournalist and editor for a news agency, I have to act fast. I contacted a stringer who lives in Padang, West Sumatra, the nearest town to the epicenter, and residents in the Mentawai region.

I had to put all my attention on the quake. It struck at around 9:15pm and I tried to get more details until 3 am. I tried calling the local police numbers, hospitals or locals who live there. But none of them picked up the phone. I had a strong feeling that something was seriously wrong in Mentawai. It was very unusual that not a single telephone land line or mobile phone could be reached. I decided to go to bed. It was 4 in the morning and I knew that I had to wake up at 6am.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010.

I turned on my mobile radio and watched the morning news on local TV. None of them reported the earthquake. However, my instinct said for sure something had happened in Mentawai. I grabbed my phone and called our Jakarta-based stringer Crack Palinggi to check whether he had any friends in Mentawai. Crack has a broad network. He is also a member of an Indonesian paragliding club. And I was happy that I contacted the right guy! In a few minutes, he gave me a contact of his colleague named Hardiansyah, who works for the local Ministry of Fishery and is also a member of Mentawai’s paragliding club.

I tried to contact him several times, but could not reach him. I tried to send him an SMS asking about conditions in the area after the quake. Thank God, he finally replied and said that he and his family were in the hills together with thousands of villagers. He promised to give me an update in the next hour as he was planning to go to the center of town to see the situation there.

Hardiansyah kept his word. His second update informed me that he had received a report from a villager that a body had been found in Muntei Baru Baru village. He promised to help me by giving updates on any developments. I was really anxious. On the one hand, I kept on looking at my phone, waiting for updates from Hardiansyah. On the other hand, I was wondering why none of the TV stations or local media were reporting the news in Mentawai?

Around 11 pm, Hardiansyah sent me another update. About 60 houses in Muntei Baru Baru were washed away by a tsunami! Oh my God! It was hard to believe what I’d just read on my phone. I called him and was lucky to be able to speak to him directly to ensure the credibility of the news. He confirmed the facts. Soon afterward, I passed on the info to Paul, and text general news correspondent Sunanda Creagh. Paul agreed to send Crack to Mentawai to cover the story.

I talked again to our correspondent Sunanda, who was on duty, and gave her Hardiansyah’s contact number to get more details. She wrote a story saying that hundreds of people were missing after a tsunami swept the Mentawai Islands. The story ran on the Reuters wire at 2:39pm. Then, a few minutes later, all local TV stations started to run the breaking news from Reuters. Suddenly, it had become the main story everywhere.

While Crack was on his way to Mentawai, I contacted Hardiansyah and asked how I could get pictures from him. He started to try to send some pictures via MMS as that was the only way. However, we had a network problem. I received the first picture at midnight. Thirty-six hours later, I received seven pictures out of his 10, all sent via MMS, of 20 kb each. Thirty-six hours!

Police carry a recovered body in Muntei Baru Baru village on Indonesia's Mentawai islands October 27, 2010.  REUTERS/Disaster Management Agency/Handout

Covering news stories in a huge archipelago like Indonesia with limited facilities and infrastructure sometimes means a photographer has to spend several days trying to reach the most severely affected area. In Mentawai, it took us three days to get the first photos of the worst-hit location. The Red Cross had been unable to get to the site of the tsunami because of a storm and huge waves in an area popular with surfers, while Crack had not been allowed by authorities to use a fishing boat to get there.

Lisna and her brother cry after their mother was found dead following the earthquake and tsunami in a village in Munte, Mentawai district, in the province of West Sumatra, October 29, 2010. REUTERS/Crack Palinggi

He finally got on a police boat after the weather eased. He was only able to stay for two hours but shot around 100 frames, of wrecked houses and villagers crying as they found bodies of family members. He used a satellite phone to send some of the images to editors in Singapore. It was a relief to see photos on the wire by a Reuters photographer.

Survivors of the earthquake and tsunami rest on a fallen tree trunk in a village in Munte, Mentawai district, in the province of West Sumatra October 29, 2010.   REUTERS/Crack Palinggi

It was also a relief to know Crack was out of the area safely. I always emphasize to our photographers in the field to remember that safety is the most important thing. Other agencies later rented a boat to try to get there themselves and had to be rescued after the boat got stranded on an island because of the high waves.

Matt George, a U.S. doctor attached to an NGO, provides medical assistance to survivors of  the earthquake and tsunami in Munte, Mentawai region, in the province of West Sumatra October 29, 2010.  REUTERS/Crack Palinggi

While my mind was occupied with the disasters in Mentawai and Mount Merapi, I then had to prepare coverage for the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to Indonesia… Experience is the best teacher in Indonesia, where anything can happen among the 17,000 islands. Journalists need to be well-prepared and can’t rest on their pillows!

Villagers flee from their village in Sidorejo in Klaten of the Indonesia central Java province November 3, 2010.  REUTERS/Andry Prasetyo

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