The death toll from the 7.5 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that rocked the Indonesian island of Sulawesi on Friday has climbed to 832, making it already more lethal than a series of quakes that hammered another Indonesian island in July and August. Rescuers struggled to reach trapped victims as debris from the storm left many remote areas out of reach.
To prevent the spread of disease, health officials organized mass burials as desperate survivors resorted to looting, according to the South China Morning Post.
“The casualties will keep increasing,” said national disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, whose agency announced 832 deaths.
“Communication is limited, heavy machinery is limited…it’s not enough for the numbers of buildings that collapsed,” Nugroho said.
“Today we will start the mass burial of victims, to avoid the spread of disease.”
Indonesian officials said the number of casualties is expected to rise significantly as some remote areas remain inaccessible.
Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said the final death toll in the north of Sulawesi island could be in the “thousands” since many regions have still not been reached.
Bodies lay in an open courtyard at the back of a hospital in Palu, the regional capital, rotting under the intense tropical sun, while a triage site operated nearby. Hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of dead.
The Indonesian military had been deployed to Palu, and rescue workers were combing the rubble in search of trapped victims, looking for dozens believed trapped a collapsed hotel. As survivors climbed over the leveled trees, overturned cars, crumpled homes and debris spread up to 50 meters inland, survivors and rescuers struggled to come to grips with the scale of the disaster.
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Survivors assembled makeshift shacks and slept outside. Several C-130 military transport aircraft with relief supplies managed to land at the main airport in Palu, which reopened to humanitarian flights and limited commercial flights, but only to pilots able to land by sight alone.
In Donggala, close to the epicenter of the quake, some waterfront homes had been destroyed by the tsunami, though many residents fled to higher ground after the quake hit.
“When it shook really hard, we all ran up into the hills,” a man identified as Iswan told the TV.
“I have one child – he’s missing,” Baharuddin, a 52-year-old Palu resident, said as he stood on floor tiles smeared with blood.
“I last spoke to him before he went to school in the morning.”
Indonesia’s disaster agency said about 71 foreigners were in Palu when the quake struck, with several, including three french nationals and a South Korea, remaining unaccounted for.
About 17,000 people had already been evacuated, and tens of thousands more are expected to follow.
“This was a terrifying double disaster,” said Jan Gelfand, a Jakarta-based official at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
In fact, the reason it was so devastating, as the SCMP explained in a separate article, was because of the unique shape of the bay.
Palu is at the head of a narrow bay, about 10km long and 2km wide, which had “amplified” the force of the wave as it was funneled towards the city.
“Because of the bay, all the water comes there and collects together. And then it makes it higher,”said Nazli Ismail, a geophysicist at the University of Syiah Kuala in Banda Aceh on Indonesia’s Sumatra island.
Another expert said they were surprised that the tsunami was generated off the coast of central Sulawesi, which is situated on a strike-slip fault, producing earthquakes that typically move horizontally and rarely produce tsunamis.
In contrast, quakes happening below so-called subduction zones can move large amounts of water vertically when the strain forces one plate to pop up or dive down.
One geologist said it was possible that the quake created an “underwater landslide.”
Due to its location on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia has been struck by dozens of deadly earthquakes and tsunamis over the years, including a massive tsunami in 2004 that killed more than 100,000.
Meanwhile, amid the chaos, looters have emerged with AP reporting that they are stealing items from a shopping mall badly damaged by the quake and tsunami in the city of Palu in central Sulawesi.
An Associated Press photographer saw items being carried off from inside the collapsed mall Sunday. Residents were also seen making their way back to badly damaged homes to try to pick through whatever belongings they could salvage to take away.
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During a visit to the hard-hit city of Palu on Sulawesi island, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said there are also shortages of fuel, electricity and food, since most shops shut down in the wake of the tragedy. He said the government is flying in supplies by air, and urged residents of Palu to remain there to help the region recover as soon as possible.