How a tsunami unleashed a wave of compassion

The vivid memory of surviving the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami has inspired Titi Moektijasih to use her experience to train others in emergency response.
How a tsunami unleashed a wave of compassion
17 August 2018

Key takeaways

  • UNOCHA Humanitarian Affairs Analyst Titi Moektijasih survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, one of the deadliest natural disasters in history.
  • At the recent Disaster Response Team (DRT) training, Titi shared her experience and explained how corporate organizations should work with NGOs to coordinate emergency response efforts.
  • Operations Supervisor Noorazam Ibrahim has also been involved in DRT to train DHL staff on the responsibilities and challenges during deployments.

As she felt the first tremors, Titi Moektijasih rushed down the stairs of her three-storey house in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. A phalanx of motorbikes was charging towards her. The riders waved their arms and screamed, “Run, sister! Water is coming, water is coming!”

Behind them, she saw an entire house slowly moving towards her, as if there was an invisible giant hand gently pushing it across the ground. Heart pounding, she joined the growing wave of runners, scattering in the path of the approaching tsunami.

The roads had become treacherous. Cars raced ahead, crashing into people who were blocking their way as the water levels began to rise. As death and panic began to surround her, Titi wanted to stop and help those who fell or slumped around her. But she could not.

“My brain just kept telling me to run, or I would die. I repeated the words, ‘Oh God, I cannot help – forgive me!’” she said, reliving the scenes from Boxing Day 2004 in vivid detail. “I said in my heart, ‘God, if I can still do good things in my life; if I can be useful to people, do not let me die here.’”

Titi survived, somehow, on a piece of driftwood. But she has never forgotten her pledge. At the time of the tsunami she was a Humanitarian Affairs Analyst at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). Since that dreadful day, she has worked closely with communities in disaster-hit areas, helping them to recover and rebuild.

Titi Moektijasih
Titi Moektijasih

“You can’t stop disasters from happening, but you must be prepared. And respond by getting aid to the people who need it most,” she said.

Organization key to emergency response

The 2004 earthquake was one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. But Titi believes many fatalities could have been prevented if relief efforts were better coordinated. For instance, trucks filled with aid had arrived in Banda Aceh as early as the second day, but there was a clear lack of organization. Men and boys would push ahead of women and children, grabbing food, clothes and water.

“So the weak, sick and old didn’t get enough,” she said. “It was a question of distribution.”

As Titi reflected on the events of 2004 she vowed that history should not repeat itself, and decided to turn to the private sector. She reasoned that logistics companies already had a wealth of expertise and networks that could be invaluable in a crisis – and that their efficiency could save lives.

Titi played an important role in a recent training session that was part of DHL’s Disaster Response Team (DRT) program, which has partnered with the UN since 2005. Besides sharing her tsunami experience, Titi also explained to participants how companies can work best with non-governmental organizations — often the first to arrive on site — to coordinate emergency response efforts.

Titi speaking to participants at the recent Disaster Response Team (DRT) training.
Titi speaking to participants at the recent Disaster Response Team (DRT) training.

Currently, DHL has agreements in 11 countries, whereby a pool of some 400 specially trained volunteers can be rapidly deployed to assist with logistics in disaster areas, when called upon to help by the UN.

Relief aid often clogs up the airport after being left unattended on the tarmac, as governments are overwhelmed when a major disaster strikes. That’s when professional, experienced, and targeted help can make all the difference.

The DRT crew usually gets to work immediately after they disembark from the plane. Among other things, they unload the crates, move the supplies to a warehouse, make inventories and ensure that relief organizations get the supplies.

They may stay for a few days to a few weeks, depending on how fast the government can take over their role.

“Whenever I fly into a disaster area, the first thing I see are supplies strewn all over the airport,” said DHL Operations Supervisor Noorazam Ibrahim, who has been deployed in five disaster areas since he signed up for DRT in 2006. “Crates of food and medicine piled up along the side of the runways, just sitting there.”

This is precisely when DHL’s expertise delivers.

Roadblocks and challenges

This kind of collaboration is critical to help countries in the region, especially in places that are disaster-prone, such as Indonesia, says Titi. In 2017 alone, Indonesia was hit by 2,341 natural disasters, displacing 3.5 million people and killing 377.

The task of the DRTs is not without challenges. Sometimes the team has to sleep in the open because there is no accommodation available, says Noorazam. They also often have to work in the searing heat, typical of Southeast Asia’s climate. But the most difficult part of the work is not having the right equipment to do the job. Some airports are so poorly equipped that they do not even have forklifts to move goods around.

Noorazam helps train future batches of DHL staff in disaster response.
Noorazam helps train future batches of DHL staff in disaster response.

“Once, we had to drive to the nearest town, some 50km from the airport – to buy a forklift. The ones at the airport weren’t working.”

These days, Noorazam helps train future batches of DHL staff who volunteer, and together with Titi, shares his experiences. They explain and teach recruits about the role of the DRT and its responsibilities in an emergency.

Noorazam’s advice for volunteers is simple. “You must be passionate about helping people, because it is not an easy job,” he said.

From nightmare to a dream of something better

For Titi, 14 years may have passed since the tsunami hit Aceh, but one scene from 26 December 2004 still haunts her.

As she hesitated at a junction while the waves rushed ever closer, and the water rose above her ankles, she saw a girl aged about nine staring at her, with helplessness in her eyes. “We looked at each other and knew in our hearts that we were going to die,” she said.

It was the last time she saw the girl.

Another wave of water hit her, this time making her fall. Exhausted and on the brink of giving up, she blanked out. Titi survived, but that indelible scene in her mind has kept her going, galvanizing her commitment to lend a hand to others.

“Seeing so much suffering changes your life – and changes the way you think about life,” she added. “I tell myself that I must never waste mine. And continue to do what I can to help.”