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Sep 3, 2009

Screams of panic as the earth moves in Jakarta

Journalist Ashlee Betteridge watches while Jakarta trembles with their latest earthquake, which hit 7.0 on the Richter scale.

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The building lurched suddenly. Someone screamed “EARTHQUAKE!”.

I was already on Facebook, so my first instinct was to suddenly type “bg [sic] earthquake” as my status.

I looked at the status and thought “Oh no, I’ve made a typo!”.

I looked at it again and thought “OH MY GOD THERE’S A BIG EARTHQUAKE!”, grabbed my bag and started running for the door.

By the time I had processed all those thoughts, our office building was lurching all over the place in a disorienting and dizzying fashion that made it difficult for unathletic me to actually run, let alone walk, without the swagger of a drunk.

We gathered in an open courtyard on our level just outside our office. Some people decided to run nine flights down the emergency stairs, while the rest of us stayed, all our skins drained of colour. With so many people on the stairs, it was also a pretty dangerous place to be — while covering the story later, we found out that several people had been seriously injured in a panicked stampede trying to escape a shopping mall in Cirebon, West Java.

People ran out of nearby offices screaming in panic. Nobody was really sure what to do. A quick glance at the horizon showed that it wasn’t just our building that was shaking.

Only the very hardest of the cynical journalist types in my office remained completely composed. I knew that they would probably start telling anecdotes soon about the Vietnam War or the Asian Economic Crisis or something, so I kept a safe distance from them. The day had already been trying enough.

This was my first ever earthquake, later confirmed to be a 7.0 trembler by the US Geological Survey agency.

The thing that freaked me out most is that the Indonesians and long term expatriates were also so clearly very freaked out. Earthquakes are not uncommon in Indonesia, so I took it from their squeals and looks of terror that this was an especially big one. Nobody was taking MySpace-style group photos on their mobile phones, which is practically a national sport here, so it had to be serious. Later, many of my Indonesian co-workers told me it was one of the biggest quakes they had felt, and they were especially surprised by how long the movement lasted.

The building continued to lurch and sway and groan for a whole minute. The closest thing I can compare the sensation to is being on a boat on really choppy seas, but even that doesn’t go far enough to describe the strange sensation. The sea is supposed to have waves … the central business district is not.

When the building stopped heaving, most people were evacuated, which was probably the smart thing to do considering building codes around here are pretty dubious. Allegedly the buildings in Jakarta are constructed to withstand earthquakes of up to magnitude 7.0, but everyone here knows a bit of cash under the table can get you out of bothersome problems like adhering to safety standards.

While others streamed out on to the streets, some of us went straight back in to our slightly cracked newsroom to start filing for our website.

My hands were shaking so much that there were a lot of typos and for hours afterwards I felt like I was going to vomit up my lunch. But that’s not really unusual for Jakarta, one of the world’s greatest cities for food poisoning. And truth be told, I often make a lot of typos too.

It didn’t take long for us to gather that this had been a very serious quake, and Jakarta had not borne the brunt of it. Reports rolled in from cities and villages around West Java about collapsed homes and landslides, while the death toll kept rising, and is expected to continue to go up as rescuers and authorities access more villages that had communications cut off by the quake. Damage to infrastructure such as schools, water mains and electrical cabling will take time to repair as well, and may cause more incidents in the next few days.

As the clean up mission starts, I can’t help feeling that we are at the beginning of another one of these Indonesia stories that we will be chasing up for months or years. When will the school classroom be rebuilt? Where will the people who have lost their homes live? What is the government going to do to fix this?

The victims of the Situ Gintung dam burst, which happened just outside Jakarta in March this year, are still waiting for compensation and new homes. The victims of the Lapindo mudflow in Sidoarjo, East Java, have been chasing compensation for years and living in terrible makeshift conditions.

Those two disasters were manmade. There was someone to blame. Mother Nature doesn’t pay out compensation, so the victims of Wednesday’s earthquake may face even longer delays in returning to their normal lives.

Indonesia’s economy is growing and the nation is moving from strength to strength, despite its bad luck when it comes to disasters. But for those outside of the big cities, whose first thought would have been about their futures rather than Facebook when the ground started to move, times are still pretty tough, and they were the people most affected by Wednesday’s disaster.

Ashlee Betteridge is a freelance Australian journalist based in Jakarta and also works on the web desk of the Jakarta Globe newspaper.

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