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Shelter for Indonesia's Earthquake Survivors

By Laura Sheahen

"During the earthquake I couldn't walk, I couldn't stand. I held on to a tree as the ground swayed," says Murni, a 51-year-old woman living in a village in West Sumatra, Indonesia. "My head hurt from the shaking."

Builders work on a new pondok.

Builders work on a new "pondok," or small wooden home. Photo by Maria Josephine Wijiastuti/CRS

Though Murni and her family made it through the September 2009 quake alive, their house collapsed. For weeks they lived in their yard under plastic sheeting. Across the palm-dotted countryside, thousands of villagers were doing the same. All in all, the earthquake affected almost a million Indonesians, many of whom make a meager living farming rice or coconuts.

Some villagers' houses were still standing, and looked okay. But telltale diagonal cracks and falling plaster showed that the homes were unsafe. The government determined that 249,000 were damaged. Few villagers were willing to risk sleeping in the old structures.

Living next to the ruins of their houses, villagers tried to salvage materials like doors to build new homes. But they rarely had enough to make a safe, livable building. Knowing that their needs would vary based on which scrap materials they could save, Catholic Relief Services' partner WALHI designed an innovative shelter program to help villagers help themselves.

Building Safe Homes

The program gives cash grants to eligible villagers so they can create a "pondok"—a small transitional shelter that is durable and comfortable. Beneficiaries can use the money for roofing, walls, cement, carpentry work and more. The program also ensures that the pondoks can withstand future shocks.

In the island nation of Indonesia, where minor and major tremors strike every few months, constructing quakeproof homes is a straightforward matter of life and death. The first few feet of a house can be built with concrete or bricks, but the upper half of the walls should be made out of lightweight material like wooden planks or tough woven reeds. Bracing the corners of the house and creating a stable foundation are also critical.

The home of Anise, 44, is a stark reminder of why building materials matter. She was cooking when the quake struck, and immediately ran out of her kitchen, whose walls were made entirely of stone. The kitchen crumbled down, along with a brick wall that might have buried her son if he had woken up from his nap five minutes later than he did. Much of the rest of her house—the wooden parts—stayed standing, though the house is still not safe enough to live in.

More than 11,000 Sumatran families built new quakeproof homes.

In just six months, more than 11,000 Sumatran families built new quakeproof homes thanks to a CRS program. Photo by Maria Josephine Wijiastuti/CRS

Rebuilding Entire Communities

Anise didn't take advantage of the CRS shelter program just for her own family; she joined a committee that helps her neighbors apply for pondok grants and ensures the money is spent as intended. Outside her new wooden home hangs a large CRS banner, telling villagers how to get started with the program. "If it weren't for CRS, my family would still be living in a tent," she says. She wants the families around her to have better options too.

When families are identified as eligible—meaning their house is unsafe—they receive the first installment of cash, plus instructions on how to build sturdy pondoks. When they've made progress, they receive the second installment. The total amount is slightly over $250.

At one cash distribution, a crowd of more than 100 people chatters as CRS staff arrive. One by one, villagers come forward with their ID cards and vouchers, sign their names or leave a thumbprint, and receive the money and a poster about safe shelters.

Jawiya, an 80-year-old grandmother, is using the cash to pay for cement, timber and labor. Her husband is disabled—when the quake struck, he crawled out of their old house because his legs are paralyzed. Jawiya herself is frail, so help from construction workers is a necessity.

Safety and Security

Midway through the building process, CRS staff visit homes and run down a checklist of questions, including "Are the walls and frame plumb?" and "Are the corners braced?" People's attitudes have been changing about brick houses, which were once seen as a status symbol. "They know now to pick wood and not bricks," says Wahyu Widayanto, CRS' community mobilization manager.

More than 11,000 quake-affected families have roofs over their heads as a result of the CRS program. No longer forced to choose between sleeping in an unstable ruin or sleeping exposed in their yards, "they feel safer," says Widayanto.

Ramuni, a disabled woman who walks with great difficulty, managed to hobble out of her house when the quake hit. After three months in a tent and time at her in-laws' house, she now has a home she doesn't need to be afraid of. "It's a small pondok, because there's just me and my husband," she says. "But if this program didn't exist, I wouldn't have a house."

Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Cambodia.

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