JAKARTA — It was 11 a.m., just a few hours after Budi Waluyo had sat down to work, when, hundreds of miles away, the earth shook. A powerful magnitude 8.6 earthquake had struck off North Sumatra, killing 1,300 people and devastating the island of Nias.

“It was the beginning of a long day,” said Waluyo about the March 2005 quake. “Another 30 to 40 earthquakes followed, each one potentially dangerous.”

The devastating December 2004 earthquake and tsunami was fresh in his mind. That disaster killed nearly 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean, the majority of them in Indonesia. Waluyo has been monitoring seismic activity at the government's earthquake research center, known as the BMG, for more than 30 years and it is his job to alert authorities of potentially destructive earthquakes and tsunamis.

“It’s a big responsibility,” he said. “I do the best job I can do with the resources I have, but it saddens me when we can’t do enough and people are killed.”

Indonesians are well-accustomed to the persistent mashing and grating of tectonic plates — which can cause earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and landslides. The country lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire, straddling three major plates (and several other smaller ones) making it one of the most geologically volatile regions in the world. The United States Geological Survey describes Indonesia as “the most complex active tectonic zone on earth.”

Waluyo records somewhere between 6,000 to 8,000 earthquakes a year, and the country has had more volcanic eruptions than anywhere else on Earth.

The eruption of Toba 73,000 years ago is thought to have nearly wiped out humankind, and in 1883 the eruption of Krakatoa led to several years of winter-like conditions around the world. In 2006, a major earthquake and volcanic eruption happened simultaneously in the heavily populated region of Central Java, killing about 6,000 people and displacing more than 1 million.

Yet the frequency of natural disasters in Indonesia has led, in many cases, to complicity among its inhabitants.

Natural calamity is part of everyday life here. When Jakarta office towers sway and walls crack, it is hardly a topic of conversation. Last month, two huge earthquakes near Papua — measuring about 7.5 magnitude, causing widespread damage and killing five people — barely made the local news.

Indonesians chalk it all up to “God’s will.” Rarely do they follow the advice of scientists and evacuate volcano zones, choosing instead to follow long-held animist beliefs. Villagers on the slopes of the temperamental Mount Merapi in Central Java put their trust in an elderly mystic, called the Juru Kunci, who has, so far, always been right.

At another volcano in East Java, residents have been mining the slopes for generations. They protect themselves by marching up to the mountain’s caldera and tossing into it live sacrificial animals several times a year.

It’s just as well. Scientists the world over know little about predicting earthquakes, tsunamis or volcanoes, and Indonesians are reluctant to spend weeks or months in refugee camps every time a scientist, whom they’ve never met, gets nervous.

Waluyo, one of those scientists, admits that predictions are near impossible and says the goal should be a system of communication that allows for nearly instantaneous emergency response. To such an end, he works 12-hour shifts at the office and then continues his monitoring at home. His phone rings constantly with questions from local government officials, residents who swear they felt a tremor and journalists looking for explanations.

Minutes after a 2007 earthquake in Padang, the capital of South Sumatra, Waluyo relayed a tsunami warning to area governments, the media and local mosques. The mosques, using loudspeakers usually meant for calling people to prayer, blasted the warnings across the city, calling on residents to flee to higher ground. Once Waluyo and his colleagues decided the coast was clear, the mosques told everyone to come home.

It didn’t always work this way.

Before the game-changing 2004 earthquake and tsunami, Waluyo’s office was small, unassuming, mostly analog and almost totally ignored.

“At the time, with the technology and personnel we had, recording seismic activity and disseminating information was difficult. It could take days,” he said. “I sometimes wondered if the government would just close us down.”

Now, with a new sense of urgency from Jakarta and funding from France, Germany, Japan and China, the BMG is bustling. It has a brand-new building, complete with the latest satellite and computer technology, hundreds more employees and dozens more monitoring stations across the country.

On any given day, fascinated international scientists and concerned foreign donors scurry about the office, which now has massive state-of-the-art computer screens displaying every tiny murmur. In just five years, Waluyo and his colleagues have gone from eccentric nerds to virtual heroes.

“I used to have so much free time, which I would spend studying seismology and tectonics. Things have changed, now there is so much more we can do,” he said.

Waluyo’s agency is now considered the first line of defense. Signals are recorded, the dangers estimated, and then warnings are instantly sent to rescue teams — a streamlined system that is thought to have so far saved thousands of lives.

“I never get stressed out and I don’t panic,” Waluyo says. “I love my job because I am in a position to save lives. I take it very seriously. I don’t get as much money as I could working for an oil company, but it is much more rewarding.”


Other GlobalPost dispatches from Indonesia:

Hope, change, and the hometown boy

Indonesia ferry disaster

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