Indonesia: Helping Padang's families build back better

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by Malka Older

Flying into Padang, I am struck, as always, by the dramatic beauty of West Sumatra. From the ocean, emerald paddy fields and swathes of jungle stretch to sharp blue-grey mountains. The distinctive minang-kabau architecture, characterized by roofs with sweeping spires to mimic water buffalo horns, adds to the natural charm of the place.

Now, though, many of those roofs are gaping, asymmetrical or completely collapsed. It has been nearly two months since I left Padang - and two and a half months since the earthquake - and it is a little surprising how little has changed. Yes, the electricity and water are functioning again (although there are still regular blackouts, that is normal for most Indonesian cities). But driving through the city we pass, among the untouched buildings, wreck after wreck that has not even been knocked down yet, let alone rebuilt. We attend a government meeting in a building with large cracks in the plaster, next door to another one that is plainly beyond saving, and has been cordoned off.

The city government is desperately trying to both plan and fund building back better, and particularly for looking for ways to counter the persistent threat of additional earthquakes and, worse, a tsunami. Mercy Corps has agreed to help by using some of the private funds donated after the earthquake for hazard mapping, to ensure the government has the data it needs to make the best reconstruction decisions.

On another day, I headed north to the rural areas where the damage had been most devastating and widespread. Although some houses had been knocked down, evidenced only by piles of rubble or still-tiled foundations, many were still leaning, tilting, sagging or wide open. Many of the houses have printed signs on the doors, identifying them as "Badly Damaged," "Moderately Damaged" or "Slightly Damaged," according to the government classification. Many families are still living in tents in their yards.

I was there to visit Mercy Corps' voucher program which, funded by DFID, is providing more than 4,000 earthquake-affected families with vouchers they can use to by reconstruction materials like cement and roofing from local shops. In addition to helping families rebuild, this program also stimulates the locally economy.

"It's great," one shop-keeper told me, in the building that serves both as his house and store, about two hours from Padang City. "Many more people are buying this week."

But the main benefit is, of course, for the families themselves. "Thank you," one woman exclaimed to me, after purchasing her cement. "This is wonderful."

Another woman told me she was planning to build a cement house to replace the wooden one she had before. "Just make sure you build it safely," I said, pointing her towards a desk covered in pamphlets and posters about safe construction. Mercy Corps has sub-granted to an organization called Build Change to complement the program with materials and trainings on proper construction techniques.