Indonesia quake, tsunami death toll could reach ‘thousands’
Days after Sulawesi hit by double disaster, fears grow that whole towns may have been swept away
The death toll from a powerful earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia rose to 832 on Sunday, as stunned people on the stricken island of Sulawesi struggled to find food and water, looting spread and fears grew that whole towns may have been swept away.
Squads of orange-clad rescue workers clambered over the tangled remains of an Indonesian hotel Sunday, hoping to dig out 50 to 60 guests still feared trapped by the disaster, according to news reports.
Authorities believe the 80-room Hotel Roa-Roa in the city of Palu was near capacity when the district was ravaged by a 7.5-magnitude quake and a tsunami wave Friday.
“It is assumed there are still 50 to 60 people trapped under the rubble,” said disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.
Rescue workers are making the hotel a focus of their efforts to save lives. But they face a race against time to locate and extract survivors before injuries, exhaustion or dehydration take hold.
“We even heard people calling for help there at the Roa-Roa hotel yesterday,” Muhammad Syaugi, head of the national Search and Rescue Agency, told AFP on Sunday.
At least one person has been pulled out alive, he added.
Video posted by the agency on Sunday showed weary rescuers carrying one body wrapped in black plastic out on a stretcher.
Until Friday, the Roa-Roa was a modern chic hotel catering to business travelers, with views of the Makassar Strait and cloud-shrouded mountains in the distance.
The rescue effort is being hampered by a lack of equipment and by continuing aftershocks.
Syaugi said what rescue staff need now is heavy lifting equipment like an excavator. “That is the priority,” he said. “I saw one in downtown Palu and it was just sitting there.”
Some rooms at the back of the hotel could be accessible, he added “but it would be dangerous if search teams go in there because we are still having aftershocks.”
The search is expected to continue until next Friday evening, but could be extended if survivors are found within that time.
“Our target for evacuation is within seven days, but if within that seven days we find survivors, we will add three more days,” said Syaugi.
“It feels very tense,” said 35-year-old mother Risa Kusuma, comforting her feverish baby boy at an evacuation centre in the gutted city of Palu. “Every minute an ambulance brings in bodies. Clean water is scarce. The minimarkets are looted everywhere.”
Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said the toll could reach “a thousand, thousands” based on the death toll of previous disasters.
State media reported that the death toll had increased to 832 with a further 540 serious injured, but those figures were for Palu alone and relief agencies expressed fears that the number could spike once news started coming in from other affected areas of the island.
“Worryingly, the National Disaster Management Agency has said they’ve received no information from the district of Donggala, which is closer to the epicenter of the earthquake,” said Helen Szoke of Oxfam, referring to a region that is home to around 300,000 people.
In Palu on Sunday aid was trickling in, the Indonesian military had been deployed and search-and-rescue workers were doggedly combing the rubble for survivors.
There were also concerns over the whereabouts of hundreds of people who had been preparing for a beach festival when the 7.5-magnitude quake struck, sparking a tsunami that ripped apart the city’s coastline.
Amid the leveled trees, overturned cars, concertinaed homes and flotsam tossed up to 50 meters 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 powerful aftershocks would topple damaged homes and bring yet more carnage.
C-130 military transport aircraft with relief supplies managed to land at the main airport in Palu, which re-opened 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 the severe damage at some of the area’s major sea ports, with large ships tossed on land, quays and bridges trashed and shipping containers thrown around.
Hospitals were overwhelmed by the influx of the injured, with many people being treated in the open air. There were widespread power blackouts.
“We all panicked and ran out of the house” when the quake hit, said Anser Bachmid, a 39-year-old Palu resident. “People here need aid, food, drink, clean water.”
Dramatic video footage captured from the top floor of a parking ramp as the tsunami rolled in showed waves bringing down several buildings and inundating a large mosque.
“I just ran when I saw the waves hitting homes on the coastline,” said Palu resident Rusidanto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
About 17,000 people had been evacuated, the government disaster agency said and that number was expected to soar.
“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 but we don’t know what they’ll find there.”
Images showed a double-arched yellow bridge had collapsed with its two metal arches twisted as cars bobbed in the water below.
A key access road had been badly damaged and was partially blocked by landslides, the disaster agency said.
Friday’s tremor was also felt in the far south of the island in its largest city Makassar and on neighboring Kalimantan, Indonesia’s portion of Borneo island.
The initial quake struck as evening prayers were about to begin in the world’s biggest Muslim majority country on the holiest day of the week, when mosques are especially busy.
Indonesia is one of the most disaster-prone nations on earth.
It lies on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, where tectonic plates collide and many of the world’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.
Earlier this year, a series of powerful quakes hit Lombok, killing more than 550 people on the holiday island and neighboring Sumbawa.
Indonesia has been hit by a string of other deadly quakes, including a devastating 9.1-magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Sumatra in December 2004. That Boxing Day quake triggered a tsunami that killed 220,000 throughout the region, including 168,000 in Indonesia.
This photograph taken by Indonesia’s National Agency for Disaster Management shows a collapsed shopping mall in Palu. Photo: AFP/BNPB
With AFP and agencies