Chaos Leaves Tsunami Aid Rotting

Tuapejat and Sikakap. Despite being the capital of Mentawai district, tsunami relief efforts in Tuapejat are apparently in chaos, with food and medical supplies not only arriving late but also spoiling due to mishandling and negligence.

The first batch of government aid arrived in Tuapejat, on the island of Sipora, only on Friday afternoon, a full four days after the earthquake-triggered tsunami swept the group of islands off the western coast of Sumatra.

The supplies were routed from Sikakap, on a small island to the south where relief efforts are being coordinated.

But about 20 percent of the ton of rice earmarked for the victims was drenched by seawater and heavy rains, while many cardboard boxes containing instant noodles and milk were also destroyed by water.

Some of the supplies have been going missing in less accidental ways. “Don’t tell anyone,” said one worker as he stuffed two tins of sardines in the pocket of his trousers. Other workers were spotted drinking bottled water meant for the victims.

Seeing the drenched rice, a senior police officer overseeing the shipment called over residents waiting for passenger boats in the harbor.

“These sacks of rice are soaked, it will rot before it even gets to the victims. Give it to these people here,” the officer told the workers.

At least 20 sacks, each containing at least 10 kilograms of rice, were handed out to the people of Tuapejat.

“Can we also keep the blankets that were drenched in water?” a local asked a worker.

At least 96 people are still missing in the wake of the 7.7-magnitude earthquake that drove a tsunami onto the Mentawai Islands on Oct. 25, and the death toll now stands at 449. Mentawai’s four main islands were devastated by the waves, displacing almost 13,000 people.

Sikakap on North Pagai Island, which along with South Pagai were the worst-hit, has become the hub for aid shipments.

But as supplies and volunteers began to flood in late last week with very little coordination from the central government, relief efforts quickly became chaotic. No one appeared to be recording which villages received aid, nor was there anyone in charge of directing new volunteers.

With no official in sight to coordinate the aid shipment, workers piled boxes of instant food on a wet ship floor, soaking the packets and leaving the contents to be scattered and stepped on by laborers unloading other cargo.

“We don’t know how much is being sent. We weren’t told the exact amount. All we know is that there is one ton of rice,” said Adek Simangunsong, a local volunteer.

“The aid was supposed to be here on Thursday, but strong currents and high waves delayed the shipment.” Bad weather had forced the relief ship to delay leaving Sikakap until Friday morning, four days after the quake.

The roughness and remoteness of the area, as well as the limited number of people affected, means that Sipora Island is virtually untouched by government aid.

“Everything is being sent to Sikakap. You can say that the aid sent to Sipora is not surplus,” Adek said. “There are many villages that still haven’t received anything. We are having trouble accessing them. Many of our ships and boats were forced to turn back to Tuapejat because of the rough seas.”

On Saturday, two boats carrying volunteers and aid capsized off the coast of Sikakap as locals reported waves up to four meters high.

The 15 volunteers aboard survived, but no one seemed to be in charge of their safety either.

Surung Matua Sinaga, chairman of the West Sumatra Disaster Relief Agency (BPBD), said his job was only to distribute aid to the victims and to coordinate volunteers, but said that when he heard the news of the capsized boats from two field officers in Mentawai, he told them: “It is not my responsibility.”

Surung said the agency responsible for coordinating volunteers was the Relief Operations Control Center (Pusdalop), in the West Sumatran capital of Padang.

But Depi, a Pusdalop official, thought otherwise. “We haven’t had any information about this [capsizing] incident. Our job is to register volunteers and journalists traveling to Mentawai. Once they get to the islands, it is the field coordinator’s job to direct them and monitor where they are going,” she said.

She didn’t know who was in charge on any of the islands.

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