PALU, Sulawesi: Like other residents who call Palu home, Tri Sasongko thought he had grown accustomed to the earthquakes which regularly hit the small Indonesian city of 340,000 residents, located at a junction where three active fault lines intersect.
But the 7.4-magnitude tremor which rattled the Central Sulawesi provincial capital just after sunset on Sep 28, 2018, was nothing like those he had experienced before.
The quake was so powerful it literally brought people to their knees. Motorcyclists were knocked off their seats while asphalt on the road cracked and buckled.
People screamed in fear and crawled to safety as the ground shook violently for another three minutes.
Less than a kilometre away from Mr Sasongko’s seaside food stall, the earthquake destroyed shops, homes and buildings, including the four-storey Mercure Hotel where 30 guests and staffers were killed, crushed by collapsing concrete beams and columns.
But the danger was not over.
A tsunami warning was issued minutes after the powerful earthquake. Far in the distance, the sea began to swell before it eventually swept ashore. The powerful waters eventually spread 700 metres inland, leaving in its wake a swathe of destruction and ruin.
Even the iconic 250-metre-long Ponulele Bridge was no match for the tsunami.
A total of 3,701 people in Palu and its surrounding areas lost their lives that day, according to data from the National Disaster Mitigation Agency. An additional 701 are still listed as missing, believed to have been swept out to sea or buried under thick layers of mud and debris.
Mr Sasongko, a stocky man in his 30s with shoulder-length hair, told CNA that he is grateful that all of his family members survived the devastating disaster.
But having lost his home, his food stall and all of his belongings, Mr Sasongko now has to survive an economic disaster in a city struggling to rebuild itself.
The seaside area of Taman Ria, where Mr Sasongko now sells fish cakes and fruit drinks, as well as the neighbouring Talise beach on the other side of the collapsed bridge, used to be packed with beach-goers.
But a year after Palu’s devastating quake, the two areas are virtually deserted, except for a handful of tourists and locals curious to see what became of Palu’s iconic Babu Rahman “floating” mosque, which once stood on concrete stilts 20m from the shoreline.
The tsunami ripped the mosque from its foundations. It is now resting on the sandy beach of Taman Ria, tilting to one side and half submerged during high tide.
“This beach used to be packed with 30 to 40 vendors. Now I’m the only one,” Mr Sasongko said as he served snacks to a handful of customers at his newly acquired food cart. “Everybody is afraid of going to the beach. They’re still traumatised by the tsunami.”
People are also scared of visiting for other reasons, he said. Stories have circulated of residents claiming they have sighted ghosts or heard cries for help along the empty beaches of Taman Ria and Talise.
“No one dares to linger after dark, which gives me a short time window to sell my snacks,” Mr Sasongko continued, adding that he only sells between 3pm to 6pm.
“I will be lucky if I can make 200,000 rupiah (US$14) a day. That’s what I made on quiet days before the disaster.”
Another vendor, Mdm Badriah, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said many vendors in Talise died during the tsunami and those who survived would rather sell somewhere else or switch to another job entirely.
Still, she perseveres, despite only making a fifth of what she used to earn.
“Before, my shop used to be so full I had problems finding seats for everyone,” she told CNA, adding that in the past, she could take home one million rupiah a day during weekends selling coffees, soft drinks and fresh coconuts at Talise beach.
“Now, I’m lucky if I can get three or four customers. This used to be a prime location. This used to be where Palu residents hang out. Now, nobody comes to the beach any more.”
And there is no sign yet that Talise and Taman Ria can ever return to the way they were.
The main roads which cut through both beaches are still littered with damaged structures nearly a year after the disaster.
While some houses and buildings are still intact, some are without roofs, doors and windows. Others are barely intact while many are simply piles of rubble and debris.
All of them have been abandoned by their owners, except for a small restaurant, an auto repair shop and a police headquarters.
Buildings with hardly any damage are secured with oversized padlocks to keep looters and scavengers from stealing roof tiles and steel reinforcement bars.
One business owner who wished to remain anonymous told CNA he is ready to pack up and leave.
“No investor would put in money, no bank would give me a loan, the government wouldn’t issue permission for us to rebuild. Even if I reopen my business, we would have no customers. Bottom line is, nobody thinks Talise is safe,” the restaurateur said.
The government has declared tsunami-hit areas like Taman Ria and Talise as “red zones” along with three residential areas around Palu which were hit by a rare phenomenon called liquefaction, where a strong earthquake reduces the stiffness of a soil, making it behave like liquid.
This means the five areas are extremely vulnerable to disaster and are unfit for human dwellings and activities.
“If they don’t want us to rebuild then the government should take our property off our hands and compensate us. But they said they don’t have the money and are offering us a land swap deal instead. I don’t want that. I just want to cut my losses and leave,” the restaurant owner said.
Central Sulawesi provincial secretary Mohamad Hidayat Lamakarate confirmed this. “We are looking for a win-win solution that suits everyone,” he told CNA.
The red zones are not the only areas impacted by the disaster.
For the first few weeks after the earthquake, Palu and its surrounding districts were without electricity while mobile phone coverage was patchy and petrol was rationed.
The earthquake had also cut off several roads which connected Palu to other cities and damaged Palu’s only airport and seaport, hampering food and aid distribution.
Mr Michael Sutedja, who owns Palu’s biggest bakery chain, said businesses are still reeling from the domino effect the earthquake had created.
“Some of my suppliers were also hit by the disaster and those who weren’t struggle to get goods because the farmers were also affected. Almost everything had to be shipped from outside of Palu and as a result, prices of raw ingredients are still high,” Mr Sutedja told CNA.
“At the same time, business has been slow for us. The only customers we get are civil servants and bank employees now that the tourists and the aid workers are gone.”
Indonesia’s central bank has predicted that economic growth in Palu would slow after the earthquake, dropping to 6 per cent from 7.1 per cent before the disaster.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Palu rose to 4.77 per cent in February this year from 3.19 per cent at the same period last year, according to the Indonesian Statistics Agency.
Mr Abas Yabi, who lost his home and possession to the liquefaction phenomenon in Palu’s Balaroa neighbourhood, said the economic downturn has forced many of his neighbours and friends to seek work outside of Palu.
“After the earthquake, many businesses closed and never reopened. So many people sought work in cities like Makassar (in South Sulawesi province) and Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo Island),” he said.
“Some returned (to Palu) but there are many who haven’t.”
GOAL TO REHABILITATE PALU BY END OF 2021
Provincial secretary Mr Lamakarate said although the economy is slowly recovering, Palu is still far from the way it was before the disaster.
Before the earthquake, Palu was touted as one of the rising stars for investment, with the central government giving incentives and tax breaks to foreign and local companies looking to set up operations in Palu’s recently established special economic zone.
“In terms of investment, things have stagnated. In fact it is heading for a decline. Investors are still cautious about the prospect of another disaster and decided to wait,” he said.
Mr Lamakarate said Palu still needs help from the central government and international donors to house tens of thousands of victims who still live in tents and temporary housings and to rebuild damaged infrastructures. The rehabilitation process is estimated to cost more than US$2.5 billion.
“There are many infrastructures which haven’t been fixed. Only one container crane is operating at the Pantoloan seaport, which slows the loading and unloading process,” he said.
“We still need to fix the Gumbasa irrigation dam because 8,000ha of farmland depend on it. We also need to fix damaged roads connecting Palu to other cities to move goods.”
The local government, he said, is also in talks with foreign scientists and contractors to build quake-resistant buildings and houses as well as construct tsunami barrier walls in seaside Pantoloan and Baiya areas where factories, onshore oil storage facilities and the city’s main seaport are located.
“We hope to completely rehabilitate Palu by the end of 2021. That is, if everything goes to plan,” he said.