Hands On Disaster Response: Project Sungai Geringging
by Timothy D. Dunn, EIT, Carlisle, MA
BSCESNews April 2010
At 5:16 p.m. on September 30, 2009, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake shook Western Sumatra in Indonesia. It damaged more than 200,000 homes and left an estimated 1,250,000 people affected through the partial or total loss of their homes and livelihoods.
By October 11, a Hands On Disaster Response (HODR) assessment team arrived on the scene in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. HODR continued on to the city of Padang to determine how it could contribute during this difficult time. On October 25, less than one month after the earthquake, HODR officially opened Project Sungai Geringging.
HODR is a US based, volunteer-driven, nonprofit organization that provides hands-on assistance to survivors of natural disasters around the world with maximum impact and minimal bureaucracy. HODR was founded in 2004 by Massachusetts resident David Campbell in response to the devastating Pacific tsunami that occurred in December of the same year. Since then, HODR has responded to 14 disasters both in the U.S. and internationally.
HODR differs from the American Red Cross and Engineers Without Borders in a few key ways. The organization requires no set commitment period. If you can only donate a week, that’s great; if you can donate six months, that’s great too. HODR also doesn’t require an extensive training period, which means a volunteer can start making a contribution the day he or she arrives. HODR is currently supporting two projects: Project Léogâne in Haiti and Project Sungai Geringging in Indonesia. I was lucky enough to be able to volunteer for the latter.
On November 10, I left Massachusetts for Indonesia. After 25 hours on planes and countless hours in transit, I arrived in Sungai Geringging. And before I knew it, I was on a truck headed for my first project site.
Every home within the earthquake’s reach had been assessed by the Indonesian government and determined to be either safe, reparable, or condemned. Once the government identified which houses were condemned, HODR would approach the owners and tell them what it could do to help by removing their house safely, saving reusable materials, and leaving them with a clean foundation to rebuild on.
Working on a salvage crew, we arrived at a home that had been taken down a few days before. The salvage team’s job was to reclaim reusable materials such as bricks, stone, timber, and tin, for the families to use in rebuilding. Not much was left of the home. The tin roof had been taken apart and all but two brick walls had been removed. Our crew immediately went to work on the remaining structure. Armed with hammers, sledgehammers, and wheelbarrows, we almost had the remaining walls down and sorted when it was time to break for lunch. After lunch and for me, a quick nap, it was back to our project site. No sooner did we have the walls down and the foundation cleared that it began to rain. Unfortunately, November in Indonesia is the rainy season. But after spending the past few years in Florida, I was used to the hot, muggy, and rainy weather. The same could not be said for some of the other volunteers.
During my time at Project Sungai Geringging, the number of volunteers fluctuated between 40 and 50. Most people came from the U.K. or the U.S., but we also welcomed volunteers from Ireland, Lebanon, Italy, Australia, China, Russia, and Canada. We even hosted local Indonesian students looking to practice their English. To date, Project Sungai Geringging has hosted more than 150 volunteers from 19 countries. Not only was there a broad geographical representation amongst the volunteers, but there was a broad age range as well, with volunteers as young as 18 and as old as 65. After working on a few salvage crews, I decided to volunteer on a deconstruction crew. The local population doesn’t have the knowledge or manpower to bring the damaged buildings down safely. In many cases they simply build the walls back up to the roof. In deconstruction, we removed all of the large pieces of furniture that the owners couldn’t remove themselves and the door and window frames, so they can be reused. Then it was time to rig the structure for pulldown.
We deliberately weakened the structure by removing walls and replacing them with braces and static lines to keep the roof motionless while we were working under it. This is where I was able to utilize my education. These simply-built structures are no different than those studied in school. When removing and propping a wall, all the forces need to be accounted for and, because of my education; I was quite good at analyzing the structures and explaining the situation to others. HODR is always looking for civil engineers to volunteer for this reason. Once we had removed enough of the structure to drop the roof where we wanted it, a few more volunteers grabbed hold to pull the building down. Bringing down a roof safely was always
an exciting event.
In addition to the main work of bringing down unsafe buildings, HODR also finds satellite projects to work on, either partnering with other nongovernmental agencies or working independently. While I was there, HODR had taken on a satellite project to construct a rainwater catchment system at a relief camp. Other projects include the construction of transitional shelters and the implementation of earthquake safety and first aid training in local schools.
Thanksgiving came quickly and with it, my birthday and my departure from Sungai Geringging. We had off the Friday after Thanksgiving and actually had a traditional meal. Turkeys had been flown in for us, and they were accompanied by cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. After three weeks on-site, it was time to head home and leave all of my new friends behind. Leaving was bittersweet, as one can imagine. I met so many great people and there was still so much work to do.
HODR’s endeavors are not only great and worthwhile, but they also provide its volunteers an opportunity to experience parts of the U.S. and the world that one would not normally visit. I for one never thought that I would spend the better part of a month in a small village in Sumatra.
HODR currently is wrapping up Project Sungai Geringging. The project was originally scheduled to end in February but has been extended until April. More than 25,000 volunteer hours have been logged there so far.
On February 15, HODR started Project Léogâne in Haiti and at a minimum, is committed there until August. Project Léogâne was established in response to the January 12 magnitude 7.0 earthquake that devastated Haiti.
Hands On Disaster Response is always looking for civil engineers and more specifically, structural engineers to volunteer. If HODR piques your interest, I would encourage you to visit its web site, www.HODR.org, where you can learn more about the organization, apply to volunteer, and make donations. HODR’s impactful work would never happen without the support of so many caring people.