Shaken – And A Little Bit Stirred Too

October 15, 2011

So after a leisurely breakfast, I’m wending my way home on the motorbike, riding peacefully along Jl. Padma Utara, when all hell breaks free.  My bike joggles up and down as if it was on a cobbled road, and I’m shaken sideways with such force that I barely manage to hang on. The poor local ahead of me doesn’t. With his left hand off the handlebars while performing the ubiquitous Bali texting-while-riding trick, he wobbles mightily before crashing to the road.

For a few seconds, I don’t grasp what is happening. I think at first my front wheel has collapsed. Then I become aware of a sound like an approaching plane at low altitude and a loud clanging as if imprisoned demons were rattling the bars of their cages. The outlines of buildings look blurred, power lines are whipping backwards and forwards, and mortar dust is squirting and dribbling out of cracks in masonry. A new sound emerges from the chaos – people screaming in absolute terror.

A human wave bursts out of shops and restaurants, their faces contorted with fear, and rushes into the street, oblivious to vehicles bearing down on them. They are looking upwards, because the deep, frightening noise seems to come from above, and because plumes of dust are rising into the sky. I follow their gaze, looking for explanations. I briefly think that a plane has crashed nearby and we are feeling the after-effects of some vast concussive impact. As the realisation dawns that it’s actually an earthquake, self-preservation kicks in and I look overhead for anything nasty that might fall on me.

Hundreds of people don’t, standing in what they think is the safety of the road, but directly underneath the snaking power lines that are now arcing and crackling overhead. “Hati-hati!” I call out, pointing upwards. My public-spiritedness causes a fresh panic surge as the crowd sprints for a clear place of safety, trampling small dogs in their path. Oops, sorry about that …

Apart from a few fallen tiles, cracked walls and minimal debris, there doesn’t seem to be much damage where I am. But people elsewhere are not so lucky. Reports indicate that about sixty people were hospitalised, with three critically injured. This probably does not represent anywhere near the actual numbers hurt. On my way home, I see several locals resting by the roadside, makeshift blood-stained bandages variously covering knees, heads or shoulders. I ask one whether he needs to go to hospital.

“No, no!” he says, almost in panic. “I die in hospital; doctors do nothing if you have no money!” I don’t know whether that is true, but he certainly seems to believe it. And when the perception of the citizenry is that you won’t get medical treatment unless you pay first, people without money won’t seek treatment even if they desperately need it. Maybe Bali’s disaster management and emergency medical care strategies – and their socialisation – need to be overhauled.

Knots of locals are clustered together, still in shock. Their eyes are towards the sea, out of sight, but only a few hundred metres away. Having survived the shaking, a possible tsunami is uppermost in their minds. I try to reassure them that the tsunami warning sirens haven’t gone off. One looks at me with ill-concealed impatience. “Pfui. They don’t work”, he says simply. Later I find out that the coastal tsunami sensor buoys donated by the German government are all, save one, out of commission. Fishermen have been mooring their boats to them, damaging the hardware and sensitive electronics. Apparently the local government hasn’t even bothered to maintain them. They simply don’t do the job any more.

It’s true that land-based seismic sensors can provide data which warn of an impending tsunami, after which authorities are supposed to activate the beach-side sirens. But there seems to be a logical design flaw in the system. If the sirens activate with a continuous warning wail, all well and good. But if they don’t go off at all, is it because there is no risk of inundation? Or is it because the sirens themselves have failed? Everyone feels an earthquake, so everyone is primed to listen to a tsunami warning. If it is determined that there is no risk, why not sound the sirens with repeated short, sharp pulses to indicate an ‘all clear’? At least it would let the population know that things are working as they should.

Still later, I discover that most of the buildings that suffered considerable structural damage, or actually collapsed, were schools and government buildings. Many of the injured were children. If this is in fact the case, one has to ask the question: ‘Why are government buildings and schools more susceptible to earthquake damage in a region that is known for frequent tremblors?” Dare one even think that authorities would skimp on construction costs, and therefore safety, where children are concerned? I would hope not. But this being Bali, an investigation might be useful. It might save lives in the future.

I have been in Bali during a few quakes over the years. This one felt stronger than any of them. I understand that two simultaneous shocks occurred, one of magnitude 6.1 and the second of 6.8, which might explain the subjective severity of this particular series of jolts. But the real jolt this week was to our sense of security. One would also hope that the authorities are jolted into performing safety audits on buildings which house vulnerable children, into revising post-disaster procedures and into checking on the efficacy of tsunami warning systems.

If a big one hits here, as it did in Japan, just how ready are we?



  1. Hmmm, I had been wondering how it felt it one was on a bike at the time. Now I know.

  2. I was actually in the middle of a massage! I don’t mind saying my hands shook for 20 mins. The Carrefour is currently closed and has extensive damage. Most buildings I have checked have damage…..

  3. ‘If a big one hits here, as it did in Japan, just how ready are we?’. The answer to that question is very simple: ‘not at all’

    • Exactly. I didn’t want to spell it out, but it is apparent that the “Problem? What problem?” attitude will continue here until something of the scale of Aceh happens here. Sad, isn’t it?

  4. Fantastic article which raises some very worrying questions, all of which have been going through my head these last few days since it struck.

    I was working on the 3rd floor of a school on Imam Bonjol and it was chaos. I posted some pics I took while driving home from work here – http://www.livebali.net/2011/10/earthquake-bali-13th-october-2011.html – none of my school but some of the One Earth School and some of Carrefour.

    The point you make about the tsunami warning system is awful – what can you do to motivate a corrupt government to take action for something they perceive ‘won’t make them money’ – I say this because irony is in the fact that the damage to the tourism industry in Bali would be huge should they not evacuate properly in the case of a tsunami in the future, yet as the government doesn’t see any money up front, they don’t want to know.

    Another telling point was how the complex which is home to Carrefour came off the worst of all the buildings in Bali (that I know of). I imagine it wasn’t built by Carrefour directly and that they have rented it yet they should have done their homework on the quality of the construction before occupying the premises. Should there be a bomb, another earthquake or any other kind of disaster, it would be one of the worst places to be – no fire exits, narrow walkways to get down, and of course, let’s not forget that Carrefour is up on the third floor. Added to that is the fast & probably insufficient repair work carried out on the building to get it ‘open for business as usual’ in the fastest time possible.

    The earthquake has left more than just cracks in buildings and I hope people don’t forget that in a hurry.

  5. Interesting.
    I though Bali was not subject to big earthquakes …
    And i was also sure the tsunami sirens were working and made fun about my gf who was scared of this when we were at the beach…
    Scary thoughts afterwards…

  6. Hi Borbs,

    During the quake I was in the hills of Tianyar with my wife and her family.. We felt both quakes, one 2 seconds apart from the other. I shot straight out of my seat and ran out side looking towards Agung expecting the worst.(with beer still inhand mind you) Then quite releived to see the ancient hill still resting peacefully.

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