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Professor Uses Geology to Save Lives

Damage from the 2009 Padang earthquake. Indonesia 2009. Photo: A
Photo by Australian Aid Photolibrary

Given the proper resources, a team of geologists can often predict the possibility of an earthquake in a particular location. This provides a way to help those most at risk minimize casualties and losses.

Geology professor Ron Harris has spent years studying active tectonics in developing countries. His favorite site is the island nation of Indonesia, which is located near the northern coast of Australia. Harris has conducted geological field research in Indonesia for 28 years.

Natural disasters such as tsunamis, floods, landslides, and earthquakes are more common where tectonic plates are converging at relatively rapid rates. As Harris studied these natural events, he realized that a little geological knowledge could go a long way for the people of Indonesia.

“I realized that these tectonic processes were claiming an increasing number of lives,” Harris said. “The people that were in harm’s way essentially had no clue that they were at risk or what to do about it.”

The first step that Harris took was to compile as many historical records of earthquake and tsunami events in Indonesia as his research team could find. Fortunately, for record keeping purposes, the Dutch who had colonized Indonesia for 400 years had kept meticulous records of tectonic events throughout the archipelago.

Although the locals had had access to these records for centuries, they could not understand them because they were written in Dutch and German. It took Harris and a team of translators six years to convert the documents into English.

“For the first time in the history of this nation, they now have a historical record of all of the major geophysical events that have happened since 1600,” Harris said.

Harris has also worked closely with local school administrators, scouting groups, and community and religious leaders to provide basic education and training for disaster prevention.

On one occasion, Harris visited a small village on the island of Ambon. With his team of Indonesian counterparts, Harris helped the local disaster mitigation agency transition from focusing on relief efforts to focusing on disaster prevention. Shortly after the training, a landslide dammed up the local river. Harris and the local disaster mitigation works could tell that this dam presented a serious flood hazard, so they immediately went to work.

The mitigation team visited the city’s four mosques and asked the local religious leaders to encourage people to practice evacuation drills. After only a few days, almost everyone in the village had been trained to evacuate the area safely.

The large drums found in the village mosques were used to call citizens to evacuate. Shortly after the second organized evacuation drill, the drums began to sound. The landslide dam gave way and the ensuing flood washed away 428 homes.

However, the village’s residents were able to avoid the “choke points” and escape safely. The makeshift early warning system and the evacuation drills saved hundreds of lives.

This event further validated Harris’s belief that waiting until after a disaster occurs to send relief is not enough. “Disaster prevention is not reactive, but proactive.” he said.

Harris noted that less severe earthquakes in developing countries still claim more lives than severe earthquakes in developed countries. Factors such as poor construction, lack of education, government corruption, and lack of escape plans contribute to higher earthquake deaths.

The aim of a new Indonesia natural disaster prevention program is to help fix this problem. Members of the program have been digging trenches to collect tsunami deposits, creating tsunami flood maps to guide evacuation drills, and studying historical records of past natural disasters.

Because of Harris’ program, geologists, including some BYU students, have been able to use their skills to help the people of Indonesia avoid catastrophe.

Click here to learn more about the disaster prevention program.