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When disaster strikes: How 10 Curtin students helped plan for a ‘worse case’ scenario

News story

On 27 May 2006, an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale struck the Indonesian island of Java just before 6 am local time. The epicentre was in the Indian Ocean and caused damage to the city of Yogyakarta and the surrounding towns.

According to official figures, 5,749 people were killed and more than 38,000 injured. Almost 600,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and nearly 1.2 million people were left homeless. In total, two million people were affected by the quake.

British Red Cross, 2015.

Fast-forward eight years. It’s December 2014 and 10 Curtin undergraduate students from the School of Built Environment have arrived in Yogyakarta to work with students from the University of Gadjah Mada (UGM) to create disaster and recovery plans for the region if such a disaster were to strike again.

The students split into three interdisciplinary teams; each focusing on a specific village in the Yogyakarta region – Serut, Kotagede and Merapi – all of which are disaster prone.

The teams were given a hypothetical disaster of similar scale to the 2006 May earthquake (a magnitude 7.4 earthquake and a volcanic eruption) and tasked to return their case study village to normality following the disaster.

Despite being given just one week to undertake this task, the teams combined their study disciplines in geography, urban planning and construction management, together with the local knowledge of the UGM students, to develop a relief plan for their case study village, with concepts for emergency shelters and recovery development that were entirely feasible should the worse happen.

For many students, working at ground level gave an added dimension to their studies, providing an opportunity to go beyond the classroom and to see how different disciplines can come together for the benefit of a community.

“It was an amazing experience, the culture was rich, the people wonderful, and the experience was a once-in-a-lifetime,” said urban planning student Nathan Maas, who was part of the Serut Village team.

The disaster and relief plans for each village not only included rebuilding the damage to homes and infrastructure from the fictional disaster, but also addressed the social, economic and community impact of the event, which in real-life situations can be felt for years afterward. In the case of the 2006 earthquake, a psychological study by the Sanata Dharma University, Indonesia, revealed that Yogyakarta schoolteachers were still seeing trauma symptoms in their students more than two years after the disaster.

As such, resilience planning played a large part of each relief strategy; all had a strong focus on community involvement and recreating a sense of place. The students also investigated long-term developments to help reduce the impact of such a disaster and to speed-up the recovery process.
These ideas included educating communities on reconstructing ‘quake-safe’ homes and building vertical strawberry farms to generate a sustainable, cheap and fast growing food source to drive economic recovery and, later, tourism once regular farming returned to normal.

“It’s very impressive what can be achieved by a group of dedicated undergraduate students in one week,” said Associate Professor Monty Sutrisna who together with Dr Tod Jones, coordinated the project within Curtin’s School of Built Environment.

The submissions of the students’ final work are available here.

For more information about the courses offered in the School of Built Environment, visit