Indonesia reels after dual disaster
Hunger and thirst loom after earthquake and tsunami strike Sulawesi
Anger and desperation were growing in parts of Sulawesi this week where residents were without food and drinking water for at least four days after the Indonesian island was devastated by an earthquake and a tsunami.
By Tuesday the official death toll from the disaster had risen to 1,234, according to disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho. It was expected to climb steeply.
Signs propped along roads in Sulawesi read “We Need Food” and “We Need Support”, while children begged for cash in the streets. Queues for fuel, which has almost run out in the area, were kilometres long and the national police and troops were deployed to guard petrol stations and food shops.
The 7.5-magnitude quake struck last Friday, causing a tsunami that ripped apart the coastline at Palu, on the island of Sulawesi. It struck as evening prayers were about to begin in the Muslim-majority country. A festival was taking place on the beach in Palu.
Jan Gelfand, the head of the Red Cross office in Jakarta, said rescue teams were having to find “creative ways” to try to reach victims in remote areas. It had dispatched 25 water tankers to the coastal area, but she said this was “a drop in the bucket to what the need is”.
She added: “Our teams took 12 to 15 hours to get in and so it is going to be a while before even the assessment is done before we get a true picture of the situation.”
Around 50,000 people have been displaced by the twin disaster, with many still trying to escape the devastated region. Over 3,000 people flocked to Palu’s airport on Monday, trying to board military aircraft or one of the few commercial flights leaving the airport, which has suffered severe damage. Video footage showed crowds screaming in anger because they were not able to get on a military plane.
“We have not eaten for three days,” one woman yelled. “We just want to be safe.”
Desperation exploded into anger in Donggala, the town closest to the epicentre of the massive earthquake and tsunami, with residents begging Indonesia’s president to help them as hungry survivors crawled into stores and grabbed boxes of food.
“Pay attention to Donggala, Mr Jokowi. Pay attention to Donggala,” yelled one resident in footage broadcast on local television, referring to president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. “There are still a lot of unattended villages here.”
Most of the attention so far has focused on the biggest affected city, Palu. Donggala and other outlying areas have received little assistance largely due to impassable roads and many have been forced to take food from stores.
“Everyone is hungry and they want to eat after several days of not eating,” said Donggala’s administration head Kasman Lassa. “We have anticipated it by providing food, rice, but it was not enough. There are many people here. So, on this issue, we cannot pressure them to hold much longer.”
Last Sunday night, the central Sulawesi administration declared a 14-day state of emergency. Sutopo said this would enable “both the regional and national government to mobilise personnel, logistics, equipment as well as money to fulfil the needs of the affected area and people”.
On Monday, in Ulujadi district in western Palu, residents deprived of food and water blocked roads to intercept trucks carrying food supplies, with police officers reportedly unable to restrain the crowds. In Tawaeli district in central Palu, crowds gathered at the port to intercept government aid arriving on boats.
The process began on Monday of burying the bodies, which had begun piling up in the local army hospital, in a mass grave measuring 100 metres long. Photos were taken of the corpses before they were buried so they could be identified by relatives.
Sutopo admitted that search teams were still struggling to reach and evacuate the worst-hit areas in Sulawesi. Many in Palu complained bitterly at the failure of rescue teams, overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, to make it to their neighbourhood in time.
By Tuesday many people were believed to still be trapped under shattered houses in Palu’s Balaroa neighbourhood, where the earthquake caused the ground to heave up and down violently.
President Widodo urged survivors to be patient as they waited for aid to be distributed upon arriving in Palu.
Assistance has been slow to reach remote regions