Desperation grows as death toll topped 1,400 in Sulawesi

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Quake survivors make their way past a washed out passenger ferry in Wani, Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi, on Wednesday after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on Friday. jewel samad/afp

Desperation grows as death toll topped 1,400 in Sulawesi

The death toll in Indonesia’s twin quake-tsunami disaster passed 1,400 on Wednesday, with time running out to rescue survivors.

National disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said the number of dead had risen to 1,407 across four areas around the ravaged seaside city of Palu, and 519 bodies had been already buried.

Authorities set a tentative deadline of Friday to find anyone still trapped under rubble, at which point the chances of finding survivors will dwindle to almost zero.

Government rescue workers are focusing on half a dozen key sites around the city.

According to the UN’s humanitarian office almost 200,000 people need urgent help, among them tens of thousands of children, with an estimated 66,000 homes destroyed or damaged by the 7.5 magnitude quake and the tsunami it spawned.

Despite the Indonesian government urging foreign rescue teams to “stand down” because the crisis was in hand, residents in hard-hit, remote villages like Wani in Donggala province say little help has arrived and hope is fading.

“In the area to the south, because there hasn’t been an evacuation we don’t know if there are bodies. It’s possible there are more,” Mohammad Thahir told the media.

‘Slow pace’

In Geneva, the UN expressed frustration at the slow pace of the response.

“There are still large areas of what might be the worst-affected areas that haven’t been properly reached, but the teams are pushing, they are doing what they can,” Jens Laerke, from the UN’s humanitarian office, told reporters late Tuesday.

The World Health Organization has estimated that across Donggala, some 310,000 people have been affected by the disaster.

Signs of desperation are growing, with police officers forced to fire warning shots and teargas on Tuesday to ward off people ransacking shops.

Six of the Indonesian social affairs ministry’s trucks laden with supplies were reportedly looted en route to Palu.

In the main route north out of the city, an AFP journalist saw youths blocking the road and ask for “donations” to clear the way.

Widodo, who faces re-election next year, insisted the military and the police were in full control. “There is no such thing as looting,” he said on a visit to Palu.

‘Deadly diseases’

The Indonesia-based Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance said that more body bags were “urgently” needed as fears grow that decomposing corpses could provide a breeding ground for deadly diseases.

Rescue efforts have been hampered by a lack of heavy machinery, severed transport links and the scale of the damage.

In yet another reminder of Indonesia’s vulnerability to natural disasters, the Soputan Volcano in Sulawesi erupted Wednesday, spewing volcanic ash up to 4,000 metres above the crater.

The state disaster agency warned people to stay at least four kilometres (two and a half miles) away, but said there was no need to evacuate for the time being.

International aid offers have picked up since Jakarta’s belated request for help, with the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund announcing late Tuesday that it was releasing $15 million in aid.

On Wednesday, Australia said it was sending a medical team to the disaster zone and providing an additional $5 million in aid.

With power returning to parts of Palu late Tuesday and phone networks back up and running, there were some signs of things getting back to normal.

But for most, daily life has changed beyond all recognition.

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