“It looked like a scene from a movie where nothing remained. Trees were gone. The buildings were gone. The roads were gone. We saw big semi-trucks and trailers on their side, vehicles that had been crumpled as if they had been through a crushing machine.”

This was the scene David Pennington faced when he arrived in Sulawesi with the New Zealand Red Cross Information Technology and Telecommunication (IT&T) team just one week after a shallow 7.4 magnitude earthquake rocked the island, sparking a 4.7m high tsunami and liquefaction that swallowed buildings whole.

“I heard stories of villages where the ground just opened up because of liquefaction. The buildings and the people in the houses went in the hole and the hole closed back up again.”

Homes, schools, hospitals and mosques were destroyed by an earthquake, tsunami and liquefaction.

The Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) swung straight into action, mobilising hundreds of volunteers to help with search and rescue efforts, distribute food and water, and help find shelter for the thousands affected. International support was also sought from the International Federation of the Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the Kiwi IT&T Emergency Response Unit (ERU) was deployed as part of this response for a total of four months.

The ERU is totally self-sufficient so that it doesn’t create a burden for the local responders and David was part of the first rotation of trained experts sent over with specialised equipment. The team’s first priority was to re-establish vital communications infrastructure, which included travelling to a Japanese Red Cross health clinic in Tompe that had been cut off and was struggling to operate.

“It took our team most of a day [to get to the health clinic] because of the damage to the roads and continual slips. Every time there was an aftershock, the hill would slide, the road would be blocked,” David says.

“We got to Tompe and found all the infrastructure was destroyed - there was no IT or communications. [IT&T] brought a generator and a satellite dish and set that up with some other IT equipment. Within about 30 minutes of arriving, the clinic was able to get the internet and communications up and running again and the health workers could carry on doing their job.”

A member of the IT&T ERU team setting up a satellite dish.

The IT&T ERU also made sure emergency relief workers had vital communications equipment so that they could coordinate their efforts and logistics.

“[Indonesian Red Cross volunteers] going out in trucks with blankets, tarpaulins, water, mosquito nets to begin with had no comms at all. They would go out in the morning loaded with everything and people had to just hope they made it safely back by the evening.

“Over 100 radios were purchased and a repeater system set up, so they could talk within their own communication waves in Indonesia. One of our priorities is to get a way of communication so that the HQ at all times knows where all the workers are to make sure they are safe.”

The deployment was critical for the whole emergency response.

“If we couldn’t go to a disaster like this, emergency response would be severely limited; the effects of the disaster would be prolonged,” David says.

“It’s about getting out there and helping people.”


New Zealand Red Cross is good and ready to respond to disasters and emergencies through the help of our donors.

Donating to New Zealand Red Cross will help us meet immediate and long-term needs to those who need it most, whether it’s by providing relief to communities affected by a disaster, sending Red Cross delegates overseas to assist those made vulnerable by conflict, or helping refugee families settle in New Zealand.