This fall, the Indonesian island of Sulawesi experienced a series of tragedies that became one of the worst natural disasters to hit the country in over a decade.

During the evening rush hour of September 28, 2018, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the island. This triggered a tsunami that reached heights of 50 feet in places and tore through the provincial capital of Palu. The earthquake was so strong that it led to the soil liquefaction under many people’s homes.

Before and after satellite images of Petabo, Palu City, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia

The culmination of these three natural disasters led to more than 2,100 deaths, possibly thousands still missing and over 200,000 people became refugees as a result of this disaster. Soon after the earthquake struck, a volcanic eruption of Mount Soputan (as seen below), further complicated the already confusing relief efforts.

Footage of devastation:

The Recovery

The federal government and Indonesian military immediately sprung to action. However, much of the efforts in Sulawesi were organized by local NGOs, civil society organizations and the local government. The relief effort was fragmented and chaotic in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, with communications being down in many parts of the island.

Earthrise Media, a San Francisco-based NGO, had been working with several fisheries NGOs in Indonesia when the earthquake struck. These NGOs asked Earthrise Media for assistance. Earthrise tried to coordinate relief efforts, however, they were unable to ascertain the conditions of roads around the provincial capital in Palu.

Earthrise contacted Maxar, which provides satellite imagery to front line relief workers through its Open Data Program. Maxar confirmed they had released pre- and post-event imagery of the affected areas, so Earthrise helped the NGOs to reach their objectives with the imagery:

  1. Locate where families were potentially trapped or waiting for relief.
  2. Determine which transportation routes were still open.
  3. Identify safe sources of drinking water.

Earthrise’s analyst, Ed Boyda (seen above), used Maxar’s satellite imagery to map these objectives and provide analysis for the local NGOs. Because of unreliable power and internet connectivity, the on-the-ground organizations printed out these maps to help guide and coordinate the local relief efforts.


As a result of using Maxar’s satellite imagery, the local NGOs in Palu were able to:

  • Rescue people from collapse buildings
  • Bring food and medical supplies to shelters for people who lost their homes
  • Identify blocked roads and direct efforts to clear them, improving transportation in the area
  • Open new water sources for residents

Gathering this information through a traditional on-the-ground survey would have taken months, if not been impossible. The annotated satellite imagery maps empowered the local first responders to get help to their fellow citizens faster and more efficiently. This use case highlights the importance of Maxar’s satellite imagery being made available quickly through the Open Data Program and to partners who help extract the geospatial insights available inside the imagery.

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