Tsunami, quake death toll hits 832

Number of fatalities in Indonesia could rise with communities still cut off

The damage after an earthquake is seen in Palu, Central Sulawesi Province, Indonesia on September 30, 2018.
The damage after an earthquake is seen in Palu, Central Sulawesi Province, Indonesia on September 30, 2018.
Image: DRONE PILOT TEZAR KODONGAN/via REUTERS

The death toll from an earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia soared to 832 confirmed dead on Sunday, with authorities fearing it will only climb as rescuers struggle to reach outlying communities cut off from communications and help.

Dozens of people were trapped in the rubble of two hotels and a mall in the city of Palu, which was hit by waves as high as six metres following the 7.5 magnitude earthquake on Friday.

A woman was pulled alive from the debris of the city’s Roa Roa Hotel, where up to 60 people were believed trapped.

Hundreds of people gathered at the wrecked mall searching for loved ones.

With most of the confirmed deaths from Palu, authorities are bracing for much worse as reports filter in from outlying areas, in particular Donggala, a region of 300,000 people north of Palu and close to the epicentre of the quake, and two other districts.

Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said late on Sunday the toll could rise into the thousands.

President Joko Widodo visited a housing complex flattened when the quake liquefied the soil it stood on, and called for patience.

The ruins would be rebuilt, he said, as aftershocks rattled the region 48 hours after the earthquake.

Scores of residents shouted: “We’re hungry, we need food,” as soldiers distributed rations from a truck in one neighbourhood, while elsewhere television showed pictures of people making off with clothes and other items from a wrecked mall.

Internal affairs minister Tjahjo Kumolo, asked about reports of sporadic looting, said he had ordered authorities to help people get food and drink and businesses would be compensated.

A Video shared with Reuters shows a giant waves crashing into shore, before moving quickly into the streets when a major earthquake and tsunami hit the Indonesian island of Sulawesi on September 29, 2018.

A spokesman for the national disaster mitigation agency, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, told a media conference that the affected area was bigger than initially thought, and rescuers only had good access to one of four affected districts – Palu.

“We have not received any reports from the three other areas.

“Communication is still down, power is still out. We don’t know for sure what the impact is,” he said.

“There are many areas where the search and rescue teams haven’t been able to reach,” Nugroho said.

The rescue teams needed heavy equipment to move broken concrete and debris.

Donggala town has been damaged badly, according to a reporter on the scene.

Five foreigners – three French, one South Korean and one Malaysian – were among the missing, Nugroho said.

The 832 dead included people crushed in the quake and swept away by the tsunami.

About 16,000 displaced people needed clean water, Nugroho said, while 540 were injured, many getting treatment in tents.

Questions are sure to be asked why warning systems appear to have failed on Friday.

Nugroho, bemoaning a fall in funding, said no tsunami buoys, one type of instrument used to detect the waves, in Indonesia had been operating since 2012.

The death toll from Indonesia's twin disaster of a major earthquake and tsunami may end up in the thousands, officials say, and the affected area may be bigger than initially thought.

The meteorological and geophysics agency BMKG issued a tsunami warning after the quake but lifted it 34 minutes later, drawing criticism that it had been too hasty.

But officials estimated the waves had hit while the warning was in force.

Hundreds of people had gathered for a festival on Palu’s beach when the water surged.

A disaster official said the tsunami had travelled across the sea at speeds of 800km/h.

Video on social media showed water bearing whirls of debris rushing in as people shouted in alarm and scattered.

Palu is at the head of a bay, about 10km long and 2km wide, which had “amplified” the wave as it was funnelled toward the city, a geophysics agency official said.

Questions have been raised about what caused the tsunami, with speculation that an underwater landslide was to blame.

The BMKG said its closest tidal gauge sensor, about 200km from Palu, had only recorded an “insignificant” 6cm wave, while researchers said it was surprising that the “strikeslip” quake, when tectonic plates move horizontally, had generated a tsunami.

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