The death toll from a powerful earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia rose to 420 on Sunday, as stunned people on the stricken island of Sulawesi struggled to find food and water, looting spread and fears grew that whole town had still not been heard from.
“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 previous disasters.
State media reported that the death toll had increased to 420 with a further 540 serious injured, but those figures were for Palu alone and relief agencies expressed fears that the number could spike once the news started coming in from other affected areas.
“Worryingly, the National Disaster Management Agency has said they’ve received no information from the district of Donggala, which is closer to the epicentre of the earthquake,” said Helen Szoke of Oxfam, referring to a region that is home to around 300,000 people.
In the coastal city of 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 — looking for as many as 150 people at one upscale hotel alone.
“We managed to pull out a woman alive from the Hotel Roa-Roa last night,” Muhammad Syaugi, head of the national search and rescue agency, told AFP. “We even heard people calling for help there yesterday.”
“What we now desperately need is heavy machinery to clear the rubble. I have my staff on the ground, but it’s impossible just to rely on their strength alone to clear this.”
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 Friday, sparking a tsunami that ripped apart the city’s coastline.
Amid the levelled trees, overturned cars, concertinaed homes and flotsam tossed up to 50 metres inland, survivors and rescuers struggled to come to grips with the scale of the disaster.
Indonesian president Joko Widodo was expected to travel to the region to see the devastation for himself on Sunday.
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 seaports, with large ships tossed on land, quays and bridges trashed and shipping containers thrown around.
Hospitals were overwhelmed by the influx of those 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.”
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