Time running out in search for survivors of Indonesia's quake

PALU, Indonesia - Time was running out on Wednesday for anyone trapped in the rubble of a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, five days after disaster struck, while increasingly angry survivors waited for an aid operation to move into high gear.

The official death toll from the 7.5 magnitude quake that struck the west coast of the island of Sulawesi last Friday stood at 1,234, many killed by tsunami waves triggered by the quake.

But officials fear the toll could soar, as most of the confirmed dead have come from Palu, a small city 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of Jakarta, and losses in remote areas largely cut off since Friday have yet to be determined.

"We hope the death toll does not rise," Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, said late on Tuesday. "We're continuing rescue operations but right now the team is racing against time."

President Joko Widodo called on Tuesday for reinforcements in the search for survivors, saying everyone had to be found.

Nugroho said rescuers had reached all four of the badly affected districts, which together have a population of 1.4 million, but he declined to give an estimate of casualties.

He gave few details of the conditions rescuers had found, saying they were similar to those in Palu.

The quake brought down hotels, shopping malls and countless houses in Palu, while tsunami waves as high as six meters (20 feet) scoured its beachfront shortly afterwards.

About 1,700 houses in one neighbourhood were swallowed up by ground liquefaction, which happens when soil shaken by an earthquake behaves like a liquid, and hundreds of people are believed to have perished, the disaster agency said.

Scores killed in Indonesia quake, tsunami

  • Earthquake survivors in Palu, Central Sulawesi, crowd Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport in Palu in a desperate attempt to leave the devastated area on Monday.
  • A combination of satellite images shows Palu, Indonesia on September 22, 2018 (L) and on October 1, 2018.
  • A combination of satellite images shows Palu, Indonesia on September 22, 2018 (L) and on October 1, 2018.
  • In the wake of mass destruction caused by a 7.4-magnitude earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, survivors in Palu and Donggala in Central Sulawesi have been scrambling to salvage food supplies and other items, as aid from the central government began to trickle into the region.
  • An aerial view of an area devestated by an earthquake in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 1, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.
  • Local residents affected by the earthquake and tsunami retrieve gasoline at a gas station in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.
  • This handout from Indonesia's National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB) taken on September 29, 2018 shows an aerial view of Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28.
  • Scores of people were killed when a powerful quake and tsunami struck central Indonesia, an AFP photographer at the scene said on Saturday (Sept 29), as rescuers scrambled to reach the stricken region.
  • Photographs from Palu, home to around 350,000 on the coast of Sulawesi island, showed partially covered bodies on the ground near the shore, the morning after tsunami waves as high as 1.5 metres slammed into the city.
  • A satellite image shows Palu, Indonesia on October 1, 2018.
  • The tsunami was triggered by a strong quake that brought down several buildings and sent locals fleeing their homes for higher ground as a churning wall of water crashed into Palu.
  • People living hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre reported feeling the massive shake, hours after a smaller jolt killed at least one person in the same part of the South-east Asian archipelago.
  • The quake hit just off central Sulawesi at a depth of 10 kilometres just before 6pm local time, the US Geological Survey said. Such shallow quakes tend to be more destructive.
  • Search and rescue teams have been dispatched to hard-hit areas
  • A 10-storey hotel in Palu in Indonesia's Central Sulawesi collapsed following a strong earthquake in the area.
  • As shattered survivors scoured make-shift morgues for loved ones, and authorities struggled to dig out the living or assess the scale of the devastation beyond the city of Palu, grim warnings came that the eventual toll could reach thousands.
  • Rescuers on Sulawesi island raced against the clock and a lack of equipment to save those still trapped in the rubble, with up to 60 people feared to be underneath one Palu hotel alone.
  • Others have centred their search around open-air morgues, where the dead lay in the baking sun - waiting to be claimed, waiting to be named.
  • Still, as dire as the situation in Palu was, it was at least clear. In outlying areas, the fate of thousands is still unknown.
  • Desperate survivors, now facing a third straight night sleeping outdoors, turned to looting shops for basics like food, water and fuel as police looked on, unwilling or unable to intervene.

QUESTIONS

More than 65,000 homes were damaged and more than 60,000 people have been displaced and are in need of emergency help.

But supplies are tight.

"Logistics, fuel are still limited," Nugroho said. "We need quite a lot of tents. Food, drinks, clean water and sanitation facilities are very much needed."

The government has ordered that aid be airlifted in, but there was little sign of help on Palu's shattered streets and survivors appeared increasingly desperate.

Police have done little to stop outbreaks of looting. The government has played down the problem, saying victims could take essentials and shops would be compensated.

But Widodo, who will seek re-election next year, is likely to face a growing chorus of questions if conditions do not improve quickly.

The government has said it would accept offers of international aid, after shunning outside help earlier this year when an earthquake struck Lombok island.

"There is still limited information about the full extent of the disaster and it is difficult to get aid and people into the affected areas," Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the main UN aid coordinating agency, OCHA, said in Geneva on Tuesday.

Humanitarian agencies had been in communication with the government and were ready to help, he said.

"With so many people having lost all their possessions and homes and with many basic services down, there is an immediate need for food, clean water, shelter, medical care and psycho-social support."

US President Donald Trump extended condolences in a phone call with Widodo, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington. The United States has provided initial funding, deployed government disaster experts and was working to determine what other help can be given, she said.

Sitting on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia has been struck by devastating earthquakes and tsunamis before. A quake in 2004 triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Widodo said on Tuesday a tsunami warning system set up after that disaster, which has been out of action since 2012, had to be repaired and properly maintained.