Palu: The death toll in Indonesia’s quake-tsunami disaster nearly doubled to over 800, as ill-equipped rescuers struggled to reach scores of trapped victims, health officials resorted to mass burials and desperate residents looted shops for food and water.
“The casualties will keep increasing,” said national disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, whose agency announced 832 deaths yesterday.
“Today we will start the mass burial of victims to avoid the spread of disease.”
Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said the final death toll in the north of Sulawesi island could be in the “thousands” since many regions had still not been reached.
“It feels very tense,” said 35-year-old Risa Kusuma, comforting her feverish baby boy at an evacuation centre in the gutted coastal city of Palu.
“Every minute an ambulance brings in bodies. Clean water is scarce. The mini-markets are looted everywhere.”
Indonesia’s Metro TV yesterday broadcast footage from a coastal community in Donggala, close to the epicentre of the quake.
Some waterfront homes appeared to be crushed, but a resident said most people fled to higher ground after the quake struck.
“When it shook really hard, we all ran up into the hills,” a man identified as Iswan, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told the TV.
In Palu aid was trickling in, the Indonesian military had been deployed and search and rescue workers were doggedly combing the rubble for survivors, looking for dozens feared trapped under one hotel alone.
“Communication is limited, heavy machinery is limited ... it’s not enough for the number of buildings that collapsed,” Nugroho said.
The 7.5-magnitude quake struck on Friday, sparking a tsunami that ripped apart the city’s coastline.
Save The Children programme director Tom Howells said access was a “huge issue” hampering relief efforts.
“Aid agencies and local authorities are struggling to reach several communities around Donggala, where we are expecting there to be major damage and potential large-scale loss of life,” Howells said.
Dozens of corpses lay in an open courtyard at the back of a Palu hospital, baking under a fierce tropical sun, with only one building separating it from an open triage site on the opposite side.
“I have one child – he’s missing,” Baharuddin, a 52-year-old Palu resident, said as he stood on floor tiles smeared with blood.
“I last spoke to him before he went to school in the morning.”
The disaster agency said it believed about 71 foreigners were in Palu when the quake struck, with most safe.
Three French nationals and a South Korean, who may have been staying at a flattened hotel, had not yet been accounted for, it added.
Amid the levelled trees, overturned cars, concertinaed homes and flotsam tossed up to 50m inland, survivors and rescuers struggled to come to grips with the scale of the disaster.
On Saturday evening, residents fashioned makeshift bamboo shelters or slept out on dusty playing fields, fearing that powerful aftershocks would topple damaged homes and bring more carnage.
C-130 military transport aircraft with relief supplies managed to land at the main airport in Palu, which reopened to humanitarian flights and limited commercial flights, but only to pilots able to land by sight alone.
Satellite imagery provided by regional relief teams showed severe damage at some of the area’s major ports, with large ships tossed on land, quays and bridges trashed and shipping containers thrown around.
Hospitals were overwhelmed by the influx of injured, with many people being treated in the open air.There were also widespread power blackouts.
“People here need aid – food, drink, clean water,” said Anser Bachmid, a Palu resident.
Dramatic video footage captured from the top floor of a parking ramp as the tsunami rolled in showed waves toppling several buildings and inundating a large mosque.
“This was a terrifying double disaster,” said Jan Gelfand, a Jakarta-based official at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“The Indonesian Red Cross is racing to help survivors.” — AFP