Tsunami: retired alum reflects on bringing CEE skills to relief work

7/11/2022 1:15:23 PM

The coastal highway bridge, destroyed by the tsunami. 
The coastal highway bridge, destroyed by the tsunami. 

By Bob Becherer (BS 64, MS 65)

I was living comfortably in retirement in 2004, when I read an article in the New Yorker about a crisis in Darfur, a region in the Sudan in central Africa. The article discussed a humanitarian crisis in the region exacerbated by a war. The war was partly the result of the changing climate causing people to migrate from an area that became uninhabitable as rainfall diminished. The migration caused friction with the people living in the area to which the people were migrating. There were other factors, but climate change was one of the causes of the migration. One of the points that struck me in the article was the need for water supply and sanitation systems for the people in the area. It was a "lightbulb" moment for me. I thought, I have done this kind of work all my life!

After graduating from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1965 with a BS and MS in Civil/Sanitary Engineering, I served in the United States Public Health Service for two years. I went on to work for consulting firms Horner and Shifrin - St Louis, and Greeley and Hansen - New York and, in 1972 turned toward city, county and state work in New York. Initially, I worked for the City of New York as a process control engineer in New York City sewage treatment plants and then worked as Director of Operations and Maintenance at the Bergen Point Sewage Treatment Plant in Suffolk County, Long Island. I retired from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in Stony Brook, New York, where I was involved in a regulatory role in solid waste, hazardous waste and the State superfund programs.

Bob Becherer with nation staff at a health clinic.
Bob Becherer with nation staff at a health clinic.

I decided I wanted to put my engineering background to work helping the people in Darfur. An acquaintance who worked at the United Nations directed me to the non-government organization (NGO) Doctors Without Borders, known throughout the world as Medicine sans Frontiers (MSF). My wife reminded me that I was, at that time, 62 years old and asked me to think on it before moving ahead. I mulled it over for a few days, got her consent, and went for an interview at the MSF U.S. headquarters in New York City. I was enthusiastically received by MSF New York in October 2004 and sent to France for a one-week training program as a logistician in November. I came home and awaited an assignment with MSF.

I did not go to Darfur. The call came in March 2005 to go to Indonesia. On December 24, 2004, a tsunami had formed, caused by an earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean about 100 miles west of Sumatra, one of the largest islands of the Indonesian archipelago. The earthquake started the formation of several tidal waves that reached the Sumatra coast causing death and massive destruction. I was sent to Banda Aceh, the capitol of Aceh province on Sumatra. After spending several days at MSF headquarters there, I received my assignment to Meulaboh, a coastal city about 110 miles away. Meulaboh had been decimated; its population of 80,000 had become 40,000. The coastal highway had been destroyed. It took weeks for substantial aid to get through, usually by boat. I arrived in Meulaboh on April 15 by helicopter, the primary means of transportation from Banda Aceh. Other than MSF's Land Cruiser's, helicopter transportation remained throughout my time in Indonesia. Both the beauty of the land and the destruction from the tsunami seen from the helicopter's height were breathtaking.

A water tower constructed by the MSF team. 
A water tower constructed by the MSF team. 

The time spent in Meulaboh was exhausting and exhilarating, challenging and extremely rewarding. Meulaboh is almost on the equator; very hot, humid and, during my stay, without electricity for the short wave communications we had installed. MSF was involved in restoring local health clinics in Meulaboh and nearby communities. We worked building wells and water/wastewater and solid waste disposal facilities at the health clinics. There were many NGOs in Meulaboh in addition to MSF. One, for example, was Catholic Relief Services (CRS), whose personnel were also installing drinking water wells. Prior to the tsunami, most wells were shallow, so when the tsunami came ashore, many of the wells were filled with salt water, rendering them unusable. CRS brought in large drilling rigs to install deeper wells. We, however, did not have that equipment, so our wells were smaller, shallower, dug by hand and using locally made rigs. Another of MSF's main functions was to provide work for the Indonesian people. There were about 10 expatriate MSF workers from Australia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, Austria, Uzbekistan, Sudan and the United States. They included doctors, mental health professionals, nurses, engineers, a logistician and administrative staff. The national staff of about 100 were employed as drivers, guards, cooks, custodial and construction workers.

I left Meulaboh in late September 2005, six months from my initial arrival in March. What started as a desire to aid in Darfur, Sudan, resulted in utilizing my water/wastewater and management skills on the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. It was a life-changing experience and I credit the University of Illinois Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering for enabling me to address the needs of the people of Meulaboh at a most stressful time. Never did I anticipate that all I learned from my Civil and Environmental Engineering education would be used beyond a working career to the service of others halfway around the world. I am very grateful.

Thank you. Terima kasih.

The beauty of Sumatra. 
The beauty of Sumatra.