JAKARTA: Despite obvious signs that a powerful cyclone was brewing, life carried on as usual in the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara last month.
Aside from grounding ships and airplanes from travelling in the rough weather, hardly any preparation was made.
Locals said that they were never warned while government officials did not seem to pay much attention to tropical depression TD 99S, which had been getting more and more intense since Apr 2 as it travelled through the Savu Sea.
Even the province’s then-disaster mitigation chief, Thomas Bangke, appeared indifferent about the warnings. Mr Bangke, who was in Bali at the time on a business junket, did not shorten his trip and order for disaster preparations back home. He was eventually removed from his position days later for neglecting his duties.
TD 99S later developed into Tropical Cyclone Seroja in the early hours of Apr 4, just as people in the predominantly Christian province were preparing to celebrate Easter.
That morning, the cyclone made landfall in the Island of Timor, which Indonesia shares with Timor-Leste. The cyclone’s centre came dangerously close to the provincial capital Kupang, a city of 400,000 people.
With windspeed of up to 150km/h, the category one cyclone dismantled roofs, uprooted trees, sent debris flying and caused a ferry sitting on the harbour to capsize and sink.
From above, the cyclone was blanketing almost the entire province. In the remote islands of Adonara, Lembata and Alor, about 200km north of Kupang, Cyclone Seroja was causing extreme rainfall of up to 360mm per day.
It rained heavily for nine hours and the islands’ barren and sparsely vegetated landscape struggled to contain the influx of water. A series of landslides and flash floods occurred almost simultaneously in numerous areas of Adonara, Lembata and Alor islands, washing away people’s homes and knocking down bridges and roads.
As a result, 183 people in Indonesia, 42 in Timor-Leste and one person in Australia were killed in the cyclone that travelled nearly 5,000km and lasted for nine days before it dissipated in the Great Australian Bight.
Cyclones are rare in Indonesia and they seldom make landfall. In the last 40 years, Seroja was the seventh cyclone with epicentres passing through Indonesian soil. Seroja was by far the most devastating cyclone to hit the country.
Cyclone Seroja also devastated parts of Western Australia, where houses and other buildings were not constructed to withstand tropical cyclones because they usually do not push so far south.
The Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) said due to climate change, cyclones could be occurring more and more frequently, particularly in East Nusa Tenggara,the province furthest away from the equator and one which is surrounded by vast bodies of water.
With more cyclones predicted, experts are urging Indonesia to be more prepared for the weather phenomenon, starting from giving proper early warnings and responses to the way buildings are constructed.
NOT ALL AREAS ARE PREPARED
Indonesian meteorology agency chief Dwikorita Karnawati told CNA that BMKG had been monitoring Seroja, known as Tropical Depression 99S at the time, since Mar 29.
“At the time we did not know that it would develop into a cyclone yet. But there were signs it was strengthening.
"We immediately issued a high wave warning and recommended that all ships be grounded,” Mdm Karnawati said, adding that her agency constantly updated local authorities on the progress of tropical depression.
On Apr 2, the BMKG issued another warning, stating that the tropical depression would likely develop into a cyclone and recommended authorities to watch out for intense rains, high waves, strong winds and lightning.
Despite the warnings, regional administrations at the provincial and regency levels in East Nusa Tenggara failed to make adequate preparations in time, Mdm Karnawati said.
“Cyclone is not something which happens suddenly. We should be able to prepare ourselves for the worst, days in advance,” she continued.
“However, we are dealing with different regional governments and not all have the adequate resources, equipment and skill needed.”
Response to BMKG warnings can also vary, she added.
“Not all governments understand what the warnings meant and how they should prepare. They sometimes cannot imagine the implications of such warnings and the extent of the possible damage,” Mdm Karnawati said.
Jonathan Lassa, who teaches humanitarian, emergency and disaster management at Charles Darwin University in Australia said because cyclones happen so rarely in Indonesia, there is a lack of understanding about the weather phenomenon’s risks.
“Indonesia underestimates cyclones and this is what happened. We didn’t take cyclones seriously enough because governments only focus on responding to the aftermath of secondary hazards like rains, floods, landslides and high waves instead of looking at the bigger picture,” he told CNA.
“We need to start building a system on how to monitor cyclones and prepare for them.”
MITIGATION PLANS FORMULATED
The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) acknowledges Indonesia’s lack of preparedness for cyclones.
On Apr 19, the BNPB staged a discussion to formulate the proper procedures to mitigate future cyclones.
Among the issues discussed, the BNPB said in a statement, was identifying areas prone to cyclones and their secondary hazards like earthquakes and flash floods. The disaster agency also talked about ways to make residents more prepared for cyclones, including drills, evacuation plans and means to provide cyclone warnings to the general population.
Mr Lassa, the disaster management lecturer, said the government also needs to do more in terms of regulations.
“We need to formulate a suitable building code and more importantly enforce it. If needed, the government can subsidise underprivileged families to make sure their houses are up to code,” he said.
“Right now, there are buildings (in East Nusa Tenggara) which are perfect to withstand earthquakes but fare very poorly when dealing with cyclones. We need to start thinking how houses in both cyclone and quake prone areas can withstand multiple hazards."
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The government also needs to rethink its spatial planning, Mr Lassa said, highlighting the fact that there were mangrove forests in East Nusa Tenggara which had been converted into salt farms, depriving coastal areas from their natural defences against coastal flooding and storm surges.
“Because most parts of East Nusa Tenggara are arid and sparsely vegetated, the government needs to find ways to populate certain areas with trees which are not only suited to the climate but also strong enough to withstand cyclones,” he said.
“But first, we need to change our attitude towards cyclones and start taking them seriously. Otherwise, we will never be ready.”
Experts said Indonesia’s preparedness towards cyclones is long overdue.
Although not as powerful as Seroja and never made landfall in Indonesian soil, tropical cyclone Cempaka claimed the lives of 41 people when it travelled near the southern coast of Java in 2017. The cyclone also triggered landslides, flash floods and high waves.
Mdm Emilya Nurjani, a geologist at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University said Seroja would be far more devastating had it hit the more densely populated Java.
“We need to build people’s awareness about cyclones. In Indonesia, awareness towards cyclones and understanding about them are low. We have to step up our mitigation efforts,” she told CNA.
“We need to forge a stronger relationship between BMKG, which monitors cyclones and issues warning, and the regional governments that will perform these mitigation efforts at their respective areas.”
HAPPENING MORE FREQUENTLY
Compared to its neighbours Australia and the Philippines, Indonesia is rarely affected by cyclones. However, Mdm Karnawati, the BMKG chief, said that is changing due to climate change.
“We have detected 10 cyclones between 2008 and today. Before, it can happen every three or four years. But since 2017, cyclones are hitting Indonesia every year. There are years like 2017 and 2019 when we had two cyclones. In 2017, the two happened within the course of one week,” she said.
Mdm Karnawati said because much of Indonesia straddles along the equator, the earth’s rotational speed is too great for a cyclone to form. “Zones around the equator are not conducive to cyclones forming,” she said.
The BMKG chief added that cyclones typically form at around 10-degree latitude from the equator, where the sea is hot enough to create low-pressure areas and the earth’s rotational speed is not great enough to stop a storm system from developing into a cyclone.
Although East Nusa Tenggara is the only Indonesian province with a latitude greater than 10 degrees, Mdm Karnawati said the tropical depression which eventually turned into Cyclone Seroja was formed at around 9-degree latitude.
“This year’s sea surface temperature was exceptionally warm in Sawu sea. Temperatures there reached 30 degree Celsius while the yearly average is around 26 to 26.5 degree Celsius,” she said.
“We might be seeing more of such conditions in the future because of climate change. This will affect the frequency of a cyclone occurring as well as the energy and intensity of the cyclones.”