Tsunami's devastation worsened by inept bureaucracy

Editor’s note: Humphrey Blackburn’s new column will tackle some of the pressures and triumphs of relocating his company to Whatcom County from Northern California.

Seeing the shattered buildings, the debris in the streets, the eerie lack of people, gave me a sense of what had happened, but it wasn’t until I saw what looked like a six-story building standing by itself in the middle of a residential neighborhood that I really began to understand.
The structure looked like a strangely constructed skyscraper, but it wasn’t. It was a ship thrown ashore, several miles from the ocean. It was only then that I began to grasp the enormity of the devastation from the earthquake and tsunami in Sumatra.
In early March, I was in Sumatra to train aid coordinators and logisticians in the installation and maintenance of the water-treatment systems produced by my company, Blue Future Filters Inc.
At the time the earthquake happened, the day after Christmas 2004, I was getting ready to move from Sonoma County, Calif., to our new house in Custer, north of Bellingham.
We have had a business in Santa Rosa, Calif., since 2003 where we manufactured our unique low-tech drinking-water systems – slow sand filters.
Our market has always been rural homeowners, state parks, and small communities. We also have always had work in developing countries where high-tech simply doesn’t work due to lack of reliable power, chemicals, trained people, and tools.
Our filters tend to be large, however, and shipping costs over long distances can be steep. Therefore, a regional marketing approach motivated me to look to Bellingham as a new gravity point to service the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada.
At the time of the earthquake, I was also working on trying to nail down a $6 million contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to supply safe drinking-water systems for 36 villages along the Euphrates River in Iraq as part of the reconstruction in that war-torn country.
When the earthquake hit southeast Asia, I had a terrible sinking feeling about the enormous effort that would be required to deal with a disaster of that scale. Within a few days, I had been contacted to quote water systems for immediate shipment to the tsunami-affected areas in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Within a week we were producing filters as fast as we could and by the end of the second week we were ready to ship to Los Angeles, thanks in large part to my son, Peter, and my daughter’s boyfriend, Greg Seeligson, who flew down to California from Bellingham to speed production.
Once in Los Angeles, the project languished, however. It was widely reported in the news that logistical problems, a skeptical and impenetrable Indonesian bureaucracy, and the presence of an insurgency in the nearly devastated Indonesian province of Aceh were combining to slow or stop efforts to get aid to the area. This was our experience as well – and still is.
FedEx had very generously offered to fly all 3,000 pounds of our filters to Indonesia for free. The filters got to Jakarta, and that’s where they stayed, stuck in an Indonesian customs shed seemingly inaccessible even to well-placed individuals in the Sumatran government.
I was asked to fly to Sumatra in the first week of March. It was assumed that the filters would have cleared customs by then and would be in Sumatra in time for me to be there to train people in how to assemble them, how to install them, and how to use them.
It wasn’t going to be that easy.
When I arrived in Medan after 20 hours of continuous travel via Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Singapore, the filters had not yet arrived. I have to say at this point that after working in Peru, Chiapas (Mexico), Nicaragua, Ghana and other logistically challenged areas, this turn of events didn’t surprise or upset me particularly.
In situations like this in developing countries, you simply do what you can and hope for the best. There is even a sense of grim humor about this kind of thing. I’m not sure I would know what to do if everything went as planned.
The hotel in Medan I was checked into was just fine and better than I expected. Air conditioning! A decent restaurant with Western and Eastern menus, and lots of Australian military dressed in camo. This was the command center for their relief efforts in Aceh, which was only an hour away by military transport.
The people I was to to link up with were members of two Christian relief organizations who had brought our slow sand filters to Sumatra. They were all flying off to Banda Aceh, the worst-hit area, to ascertain the damage firsthand. I had the option of staying in Medan and resting after my flight, or going right on that afternoon to the city of Banda Aceh. Eye witnesses had stated that the tsunami that hit Banda Aceh at around 8 a.m. was 90 feet high. This has been corroborated by some computer models. Getting to Aceh was a bit of an adventure in and of itself. Flight logistics can be a little strange in places like Indonesia, but to make a long story short, I don’t know how exactly I got my plane ticket to Aceh other than it involved a handful of rupiah, the Indonesian currency, and I flew as “Mr. Jacob,” or at least that’s what the boarding pass said.
As soon as we entered the downtown areas of Banda Aceh after our one-hour flight from Medan, the earthquake damage was very apparent. The focus of world attention has been on the tsunami, but the tsunami followed a level-9 earthquake. Everywhere we drove, we saw buildings in various states of destruction. Some with outside walls gone revealing furnished apartments within, some with roofs caved in, some with nothing left but the heavy concrete water tanks that had been on the roof, now lying atop four stories worth of rubble.
Closer to the ocean, the landscape was increasingly scoured. The occasional building, or parts of buildings, still stood in what had recently been a densely populated urban area. All that was left were the flat slabs of countless buildings, crumbled bits of concrete, and a brooding silence.
Offshore in the haze were two U.S. Navy ships providing logistical support, presumably for more inaccessible areas down the coast where helicopters could be seen regularly passing to and fro.
At this point we drove past the first of several mass gravesites. Later we came across a group of Indonesian Marines who were still pulling 25 bodies a day from piles of rubble two months after the event. Some buildings would not be soon cleared away to find bodies or begin rebuilding, because no one in the family who owned the building had survived.
That night we stayed in a hotel where two of us were the only guests. It seemed like every other building near the hotel had received heavy damage. There was no street traffic at all. The hotel staff was edgy. That night there was another small quake which I managed to completely sleep through.
After returning to Medan’s peaceful, unaffected streets, I began my task of the trip – training logisticians and project coordinators in the principles of slow sand filters, their assembly, site preparation, and maintenance.
The filters were going to be placed on Nias Island (which was hit again just recently by an 8.5-point aftershock) as part of a German housing project, and at remote fishing villages on the decimated West Coast of Sumatra.
Conditions for installation of the filters were going to be difficult. Most roads had been damaged or destroyed. Access to these areas would have to be by four-wheel drive vehicle, boat from the sea, or by air.
But that’s the next part of the story, the part that is just beginning to unfold – the long rebuilding of a shattered infrastructure. I imagine either myself or someone else from my company will be visiting Sumatra – and helping to rebuild – for years to come.

— Humphrey Blackburn is the president of Blue Future Filters Inc. and Blackburn & Associates. He recently moved himself and his companies’ headquarters to Bellingham from Northern California.

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