Deconstructing damaged homes

Hard at work

There are many different facets to the work being done by Hands On Disaster Response in Sungai Geringging, but three areas in particular were being focussed on while we were there: deconstruction of damaged homes, salvage of building materials, and construction of temporary shelters for families in need. After the earthquakes hit, assessments were done on all of the homes in the area by local authorities to determine their structural condition. They were rated as either “green” for ok, “yellow” for repairable, or “red” for condemned. Houses rated “red” were required to be demolished and reconstructed from scratch. Often these homes were left in a dangerously precarious condition by the quakes, and many families were too afraid to enter them even to recover personal effects. It was the job of the deconstruction teams from HODR to safely demolish or disassemble these homes so that the salvage teams could sort through the rubble and recover reusable materials. I got involved in the deconstruction teams on the third day we were there, and stayed involved in that aspect for the rest of our stay in Sungai Geringging. Meghan pointed out the irony that I’d spent nearly ten years studying and practicing to become a designer of buildings, only to come to Indonesia to take buildings apart, and for no pay. Funny how things work out sometimes.

House ready to fall

During our two weeks at HODR I was involved in the deconstruction of seven houses. Each one was a unique puzzle. Sometimes we would support a structure with our own braces and then deconstruct it from the top down, and sometimes we would weaken the remaining structure until we were able to pull the roof down using ropes. My introduction to the process was a bit of a scary one — the first house that I worked on fell over unexpectedly while we were in the process of removing a door frame. Luckily we had taken enough precautions that no one was hurt, even though two people had to run to escape the falling roof. It was a scary and eye-opening introduction to decon, but also an invaluable lesson for all of us involved. I made the mistake on that first day of not speaking up as often as I should have, even though some of the steps we’d taken made me nervous. It’s difficult to join a team of new people and be comfortable and confident enough to voice your disagreement, but in a situation like that it was entirely necessary. We had several hours of discussion after the fact about what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again. I felt that I had a real opportunity to make a contribution to this aspect of the work, and I was anxious to stay involved to help continue the work safely.

House dropped

On my second day on a decon team, my experience was completely the opposite. The four of us on the team worked extremely well together, and there was much more open dialogue about everyone’s thoughts and concerns and ideas for the job. Thanks Marc, Dave and Joel for making my second house such a great experience. We pulled the house over with ropes, and it landed exactly where we wanted it to. It was a great feeling. Meghan and I had intended to leave the following day, but I felt more inspired than ever to stay on longer. We decided to stay for an extra week.

Rubble cleared, ready to build

Over the next week I worked with many different people on five more houses. All of them came down safely, with as little damage to recoverable materials as we could manage. Sometimes everyone saw things the same way, and sometimes there were long debates about the right way to proceed, but it felt good to contribute to each one. It is a real challenge for HODR to have a continuously changing volunteer group take on such dangerous but important tasks. Obviously not many people who work on decon as volunteers have training or experience in demolition work. It becomes really important for each outgoing volunteer to pass on knowledge to new arrivals constantly, so that the lessons learned by few are not forgotten when they leave.

I have to say that it was extremely rewarding to be a part of this work, for a couple of reasons. First, it was great to work with such a large group of inspired and unique people — I think HODR has managed to attract a truly quality group of volunteers to their project. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it was amazing to meet the people we were trying to help, and to feel the gratitude they showed to the work we were doing. On most of the sites we worked at, the family would feed us snacks and bring us sweet tea. We would often have an audience of kids watching us work, and they would sometimes pick up the tools while we were on break and try to contribute too. On occasion it was a challenge to overcome the feeling that we were a novelty to the locals and the kids — sometimes we would be watched for hours without any word or help. But we were working in an area that doesn’t see tourism or outsiders with any regularity, so the curiosity can be understood. Mostly, though, the appreciation shown by the families that we helped was overwhelming, and was the only reward worth working for.

The best reward


    Can you tell me who did your layout? I’ve been looking for one kind of like yours. Thank you.

  1. Dallas Husar

  2. You guys look like giants next to the sweet little lady! You guys are doing nice work!

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