Keith Lyons talks to Jackie Pomeroy about ‘the volcano watch’: Jackie Pomeroy is one of the foreigners living in Bali who is contributing by providing up-to-date information from the volcano monitors. Maybe you’ve seen her updates on Facebook. The American, who has lived in Bali for a decade, has some insights into how locals around Agung might be affected if and when the volcano erupts. She’s previously worked elsewhere in Indonesia evaluating crisis reconstruction projects, and she’s been through eruptions and ash fall in Ternate and in Flores.
KL: So Jackie, what is your background in Asia and Bali?
JP: I’m an economist and Southeast Asia specialist by training. I’ve worked in the region for about thirty years, mostly based in Indonesia, and have lived outside Ubud for about ten years now. I work mainly with governments and donors on development programs, doing program design, research projects and impact evaluation work.
KL: How did you get involved in communicating about the possible eruption of Agung?
JP: Like many people in Bali, when the warning level stepped up to 3 and made the international news, I started getting messages from friends asking if I was safe here in Ubud. I was pretty dismayed by what news sites were printing, and started looking for real information.
Then PVMBG increased the warning to level 4, and things just kind of went nuts. People were posting in all caps and strings of exclamation marks – FB-speak for hysterical – and there were some terrible hoax videos out there. I couldn’t find much that was useful. I’m working on a (real work) project right now that keeps me tied to my computer, so I decided to do what I’m good at: collecting data, making them understandable in simple graphs, and helping people come to their own conclusions that are sensible and based on facts. In general, I’m careful and I am strongly biased towards measurable facts.
KL: Where do you post updates? Just on Facebook or other places?
JP: I like my Facebook, but I don’t much like Instagram, and I don’t do Twitter at all. I post on Community Ubud, and North Americans in Bali. I sometimes add links to articles or videos I think are informative and reliable. People are very welcome to share my posts to other locations from those groups. I know they do get shared, and since I can’t argue or defend the data once it’s shared, it’s one more reason I’m careful with my language.
KL: Where do you think most people get information about this event? What creates confusion about the threat of the eruption?
JP: I think most Balinese get their information from local TV reports supplemented heavily by social media. I think the local news reports started out pretty weak, but they’ve been getting better as there is no eruption and people get bored – they actually think about what they are reporting. I think foreigners are getting their information from the internet and social media. I’d like to see more regular information and interviews with the PVMBG team – they are good, but they could use some communications support. I think Bali is a little different from other areas where they work because there are so many foreigners, and foreigners can be a lot more demanding about information. Indonesians would LIKE more information, but it’s not in their culture to DEMAND it.
From what I’ve heard from various friends in the field, communities in the affected areas would greatly benefit from some simple guidelines on who should evacuate, how to decide when to go, how to organize it, and where to go. I learned from evaluating reconstruction programs around Merapi in Java that evacuation can be a very traumatic process, and the more communities understand, are prepared, and can make sensible decisions on their own, the better the results will be.
KL: What role do you see social media playing in this event?
JP: Clearly, social media is playing a key role in distributing information. Most of the agencies have Facebook pages, web sites and/or smart phone apps, and I understand WhatsApp has been very important in the affected villages. It also makes it easy to send false information and rumors, which is the negative side.
KL: Where do you get your information and what does it involve finding it?
JP: I start my morning with coffee and a search for data. The first rule for data is always go to the primary source, and in this case, it’s PVMBG, Indonesia’s government agency tasked with monitoring all seismic activity (including volcanoes) in the country. They have a long-established observation post for Gunung Agung where the team of volcanologists monitors activity electronically and visually. The staff at PVMBG are world class scientists – not a surprise for a country built on volcanoes. They generally post daily data (from 00:00 to 23:59) on their web site. When we are at the highest possible alert level, I like to look at short-term data, too. PVMBG also does limited (I think non-public) distribution of 6-hourly data, and I’ve found several sources that post those reports – not all the time, and not regularly, so it’s a bit of a hunt. But so far, my collective sources have been very responsive to my occasional pleas for data and I’ve been able to piece together the numbers.
For a reality check, I always read Rio Helmi’s field reports. He goes out on his bike regularly to visit the evacuation camps for the Mt. Agung Relief group, and tries to stop in regularly at the PVMBG observation station, too. (KL: we’ll be running an interview with Rio shortly).
KL: Do you think having information in a graph format is helpful to give people an understanding of what is going on?
JP: For me, it’s absolutely necessary. I’m not a volcanologist, and it’s impossible for me to look at a set of numbers of quakes of different types, say from yesterday, and come to any useful conclusion. But if I can see how the numbers of different types of quakes are lower/higher/the same as yesterday/last week/last month, then I have some context. I think most people find the visual representation of numbers easier to understand than just raw data, especially when they don’t have the relevant technical background. For anything more than context, I rely on the volcanologists.
KL: What are the main challenges in terms of timeliness, access to information, and translation into English? What additional information would you most like access to?
JP: All of the data reports are in Indonesian, but my language skills are pretty good so that’s not a problem. I run the PVMBG interviews in the Indonesian press through Google Translate before I post them, and I’ve been surprised at how good it has become. The Magma web site with the previous day’s totals tends not to update on Sunday, and that can be a bit frustrating when you’re waiting for a volcano in your back yard to erupt. I have not been able to find out how to get on PVMBG’s 6-hourly data distribution lists, so I have to rely on other sources to post it and then copy it. That’s been up and down so far, but I expect that the longer we are at level 4, posting these might seem less important. When I can’t track that data reliably, then I’ll drop back to just the daily reports.
When it seemed that an eruption was very close, I got a lot of requests for information about the magnitudes of the quakes, not just the numbers. PVMBG posts an amplitude range for each type, and I tried plotting those but couldn’t get anything I recognized as useful. Clearly, there are limits to what we can do as non-specialists with the available data. I also recognize that there might be reasons they limit public data – for example, they don’t want people to panic when they see changes they can’t fully understand. But I would very much like to be part of a focus group discussion with PVMBG on their public communications strategy so I can understand why they publish what they DO publish, why not more, and what the public might like to see.
KL: Are you staying up late at night to get the latest updates?
JP: Haha. No way. I collect the overnight data once it’s published in the morning. I put it into an update that includes the daily totals beginning from 19 Sept – when I started collecting data – and the past few days of 6-hourly trends. There is a report I look for summarizing activity from 6 a.m. to noon, and then from noon to 6 p.m. that I try to collect and post in the evening.
I went out to dinner one night a week or so ago when stress levels were pretty high, and my evening report was late. One reader suggested I should not be allowed dinner dates for the duration. She was joking (I think), but it illustrates how important it is for people to receive regular, credible information they can understand during stressful times like this one.
KL: What do you expect to happen if and when it finally erupts? Are you anxiously waiting for that moment?
JP: I think everybody is anxiously waiting for that to happen. And I think in our age of full and instant information, a lot of people don’t really believe the experts when they say they can’t predict when it’s going to happen or what an eruption will be like. After searching for and reading so many reports these past few weeks, it’s apparent to me that volcanology is part science and a BIG part is still an art. There’s a lot they don’t yet know or understand. But I read an interesting piece by a UK volcanologist who had worked with a PVMBG team to do some basic archaeology around Gunung Agung to see what past eruptions have looked like. They were able to trace back about 5,000 years using carbon dating techniques, and they concluded that the 1963 eruption was typical. This one could be smaller, but based on past events it’s likely to be pretty similar. I think that’s a useful, workable guideline. Some lava around the top, some explosive eruptions, and some dangerous pyrochastic flows and lahars.
KL: How will you know when it erupts?
JP: I expect I will see and/or hear it like everybody else, and I have NO doubt text messages will fly and social media will document every second of it. When that happens (and assuming I still have internet), I will tune into the live feed someone has put up on YouTube (search for Live Streaming – Dashboard Monitoring Mt Agung Bali), which broadcasts handy-talkie traffic from the Disaster Mitigation Agency team in the field.
KL: How prepared with equipment and supplies, and mentally prepared do you think people are?
JP: I think people are moderately prepared. For most of us who are outside of the danger zone, the main question is ash fall and that’s difficult to predict. Based on my experience in Ternate and in Flores when volcanoes erupted, ash is a very real hazard for anything mechanical – think of it as airborne sandpaper. It can be very heavy especially when it gets wet, and can cause roofs to collapse. Breathing it is also hazardous, especially if you have respiratory issues like asthma to start with. I know many people have bought masks – it’s the one thing that’s pretty easy to do. But if we experience heavy ash fall, we should also be prepared to create an ash-free room in our house, which I don’t think many have considered. If you have young children, I think this is very important.
KL: What has been the feedback you have received for your postings?
JP: The feedback has generally been positive. Sometimes the morning post becomes a bit of a discussion forum in the thread, which can be useful. I’ve developed several good resources through that, and often learn something new. There have been a few comments in which people think frequent posts with data makes people unreasonably afraid. To counter that tendency, I’m trying to add some factual comments or interpretation so it’s not unnecessarily scary. But I generally believe more information is better than less (as long as it’s accurate), and I’m not ready to stop posting.
KL: How much do you think it helps to have reliable information, when there is so much rumour, speculation, fake news and misinformation?
JP: Rumor, speculation and fake news is everywhere these days, and I’ve never understood what value people get from making people afraid. The best way to fight that is to give people good, factual information, and give it to them regularly so they know they can depend on it.
KL: What level of trust by locals and foreigners have of the Bali and Indonesian governments?
JP: The Indonesian government has two critical agencies working on this situation: the PVMBG (Pusat Vulkanologi dan Mitigasi Bencana Geologi) and the BNPB (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana). In English, those are the Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation and the National Agency for Disaster Management. As I noted before, Indonesian volcanologists are considered to be among the very best globally. I’ve interviewed provincial and district officials of the Regional Disaster Management agencies (BPBD) in other regions — and the communities they work with — as part of evaluations and have found them to be very competent right down to the local level. There is always room for improvement and budgets are always limited, but I think most Indonesians recognize these as reliable institutions.
From what I read online, I think foreigners might be the more skeptical bunch. Based on a lot of years of experience working with government here, in times of stress and in ordinary times, I always come away amazed that there are so MANY committed, hard-working civil servants trying to do what’s right for their communities with extremely limited resources.
I think where people should exercise caution is in choosing where and how they contribute to relief activities. The government doesn’t have enough budget to take care of everyone, and I encourage everyone to be generous and be prepared for this to last a while. Money is always better than goods because it is the most flexible in meeting people’s needs. I also encourage people to know where their money is going, and make sure whoever delivers that help is transparent and accountable. I’ve already heard of one person who was collecting on behalf of a group, but the group had never heard of him and had not received any contributions from him. That makes me very sad, but it’s a reality and we should all be aware and work with reputable groups/individuals.
KL: What has been the worst, most awful things you have heard?
JP: People collecting money under false pretenses, and stealing it. Second is the farmers who have to sell their cows for 10% of their value – that’s theft and makes me really angry.
KL: What has been the most heart-warming things you have heard?
JP: The best thing I’ve seen in this crisis has been how communities have united and are channeling help to those who really need it. Even the youth group in my banjar organized a collection.
KL: How do you think a possible eruption will affect people in Bali?
JP: I think any eruption will have a direct and an indirect impact on Bali. The direct impact is for the people who live on and around the volcano, and that will be very serious. Bali is one of the richest provinces in Indonesia, but the area around Gunung Agung is a very poor district – as anyone who has driven over or around the mountain would see. Many of these people are likely to lose all of their assets – house, livestock, gardens – in an eruption, and this could be devastating for those already living on the edge. Already, farmers have been selling their cows for shockingly low prices just so they don’t lose their whole investment.
The indirect impact will come from the impact on tourism in Bali, and that will affect many more people. When tourist numbers fall, employees get laid off pretty fast. Many, many Balinese working in the tourist industry in the south send large parts of their earnings back to the village, and when they lose those jobs, their families back in the village suffer greatly. This is exactly what happened after the Bali Bombing, fifteen years ago, and it was devastating.
If you ask older Balinese what they remember from the 1963 eruption, they are likely to describe a year of extreme hunger. Crops will be damaged or destroyed by ash, and livestock suffer terribly. Trees producing crops (coffee, oranges, cashews, mangos, snake fruit) will need to be shaken/cleaned of ash to survive and produce again. When I travel in remote parts of Indonesia – for example, Lampung, Southeast Sulawesi, and other areas – I have often come upon whole Balinese villages who moved after the ‘63 eruption as part of the government’s Transmigration Program. Government services and physical distribution systems are much better now and we won’t see the famine that was experienced then, but life will be very, very difficult for those who rely on agriculture.
KL: How will the eruption affect foreigners living or visiting Bali?
JP: Overall, not very much. The southern tourist areas might not see any impact, especially if the winds blow the ash away from those areas. Foreigners who work in Bali would possibly be affected by a fall in tourism, and might see their contracts cut short (that happened after the financial crisis in 1997-98, and after the Bali Bombing). Some of us might be affected by ash, but I think that’s more inconvenience than real impact.
KL: Even though the risks for most foreigners are going to be some ash in the air and hazy days, do you think there has been an over-reaction, with people leaving Bali, taping up windows, storing food and water, or is it better to be safe than sorry?
JP: I think taping up windows, storing food and clean water and buying good masks is pretty basic, is cheap, and doesn’t have any downside risk. I encourage everyone to take basic precautions, because when you don’t and something happens, you are likely to become a burden on those around you. In my view, that’s unacceptable.
I don’t have time for anybody that distracts efforts away from those who really need help. If you have babies or the elderly in your household and have the means to leave, it might not be a bad idea if the alternative is being highly stressed worrying about what’s going to happen. That doesn’t benefit anyone.
KL: What is the main thing you have learnt so far from this experience over the last few weeks?
JP: I know a hell of a lot more about stratovolcanoes than I did a few weeks ago!