Scale of Indonesian disaster emerges but rescuers hold hope for survivors

Environment

PALU, Indonesia (Reuters) – The extent of the devastation caused by an earthquake and tsunami on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi should become clearer on Tuesday as rescuers push into remote areas that have been out of contact for more than three days.

A ship is seen stranded on the shore after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area in Wani, Donggala, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 1, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Muhammad Adimaja/ via REUTERS

Officials fear the death toll will rise into the thousands. Indonesia has said it would accept offers of international aid, having shunned outside help earlier this year when an earthquake struck the island of Lombok.

The number of confirmed deaths stood at 844 on Tuesday, most of them in Palu, the main city in the disaster zone, where rescuers were hunting for victims in the ruins.

“We suspect there are still some survivors trapped inside,” the head of on rescue team, Agus Haryono, told Reuters at the collapsed seven-storey Hotel Roa Roa.

About 50 people were believed to have been trapped when the hotel was brought down by the 7.5 magnitude earthquake on Friday.

The quake triggered tsunami waves as high as six meters (20 feet) that smashed into the city’s beachfront, about 2 km from the hotel. About 12 people have been recovered from the ruins of the hotel, with one more body on Tuesday.

Three of the victims were recovered alive.

Haryono pored over the hotel’s blueprints and building plans, searching for possible pockets and a way through to them. A faint smell of decomposition hung in the air.

“We have to be very careful so we don’t risk hurting any survivors when we move the debris,” he said.

A ship is seen stranded on the shore after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area in Wani, Donggala, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 1, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Muhammad Adimaja/ via REUTERS

Power has yet to be restored in the area and access by land to outlying villages has been disrupted by broken roads, landslides and downed bridges.

Aftershocks have rattled jangled nerves.

A 5.9 magnitude quake struck earlier on Tuesday near the southern island of Flores, hundreds of kilometers from Sulawesi, the U.S. Geological Survey said. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.

GRAPHIC: Catastrophe in Sulawesi – tmsnrt.rs/2OqQlUo

MASS BURIAL

A particular horror in several areas in and around Palu was liquefaction, which happens when soil shaken by an earthquake behaves like a liquid.

About 1,700 houses in one Palu neighborhood were swallowed up, with hundreds of people believed buried, the national disaster agency said.

Before-and-after satellite pictures show a largely built-up expanse just south of Palu’s airport seemingly wiped clean of all signs of life by liquefaction.

On the outskirts of Palu, trucks brought bodies for burial in a mass grave dug in sandy soil. Some relatives turned up at the 50 meter (165 feet) trench where the smell of decomposition was overpowering.

There was also mounting concern over Donggala, a region of 300,000 people north of Palu and close to the epicenter, and two other districts. The three areas have a combined population of about 1.4 million.

Slideshow (12 Images)

Initial reports from Red Cross rescuers who had reached the outskirts of Donggala district were chilling.

“The situation in the affected areas is nightmarish,” Jan Gelfand, head of an International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies office in Jakarta, said in a statement.

“The city of Palu has been devastated and first reports out of Donggala indicate that it has also been hit extremely hard by the double disaster,” Gelfand said.

Nearly 60,000 people have been displaced and are in need of emergency help, while thousands have been streaming out of the stricken areas.

Chief security minister Wiranto said on Monday the government was trying to meet survivors’ immediate needs and would accept offers of international help.

Foreign emergency aid would be airlifted to Palu, 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of Jakarta, he said.

Commercial airlines have struggled to restore operations at Palu’s quake-damaged airport but military aircraft took some survivors out on Monday, while about 3,000 people thronged the airport hoping to get on any flight out.

Wiranto said a navy vessel capable of taking 1,000 people at a time would also be deployed to help with the evacuation and the power utility was working to restore electricity.

Anger and desperation among traumatized residents of Palu appeared to be simmering, with some outbreaks of looting.

“Stop hiding Mr Mayor,” was daubed on a wall in one part of Palu. Mayor Hidayat was unavailable for comment.

Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Paul Tait

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