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.
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.
Cyclone Seroja in early April 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 in 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.
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.
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 that 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.
‘Cyclone is not something which happens suddenly. We should be able to prepare ourselves for the worst, days in advance,’ BMKG spokesperson said. ‘Not all governments understand what the warnings meant and how they should prepare. 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.
The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) acknowledges Indonesia’s lack of preparedness for cyclones.
On 19 April, 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.
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