Palu (Indonesia), Oct 1 : Mass graves were dug on Monday as Indonesia began burying hundreds of people killed by an earthquake and a tsunami that cracked streets, crumbled buildings and swept homes on the island of Sulawesi. At least 844 were confirmed dead and the toll was expected to climb, with heavily populated areas cut off from any assistance.
Rescuers, with only rudimentary tools, were racing to find survivors in the debris after disaster struck Indonesia’s Sulawesi island on Friday leading to large-scale destruction and food, water and fuel shortage.
Palu, a city of 350,000, was the worst affected and was reduced to ruins. The streets of the city were covered in debris and dead bodies were flung about by the 7.5 magnitude earthquake that triggered tsunami waves up to three metres high.
Authorities said that some remote areas were yet to be contacted. A lack of heavy lifting equipment hampered rescuers’ attempts to reach people stuck under collapsed buildings, the BBC reported.
“Communication is limited, heavy machinery is limited… it’s not enough for the numbers of buildings that collapsed,” said National Disaster Management Agency spokesperson Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.
He said that an estimated 2.4 million people were affected by the disaster, at least 600 people were hospitalized and over 48,000 were displaced. The current and former mayors of Palu were among the dead.
Aid agencies were struggling to get staff into affected areas as the main airport at Palu was damaged, road links were cut due to landslides and power was out almost everywhere, officials said.
People were sleeping in the open, wary of returning to their homes due to aftershocks. Reports say that aid started to reach Palu, but rescuers were still trying to reach Donggala regency, home to over 300,000 people.
Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said the final death toll could be in the thousands. Authorities said they started burying the dead in mass graves as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of disease.
In the hills above Palu, volunteers filling a mass grave were instructed to prepare for a total of 1,300 victims to arrive, the BBC reported.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people, screaming for food, jostled outside a military command in Palu. Officials said that they required more volunteers, more supplies of water and rice that could be distributed at different points in the town, instead of in one place.
Fuel shortage was affecting power generators, which were currently the only source of electricity in the city and were also being used for emergency communication.
According to authorities, aid has been slow to trickle in, delayed by severe damage to Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport in Palu, which was closed for 24 hours after the tsunami but has since reopened to limited flights.
Priority will be given to evacuating survivors and allowing aid workers to bring in food and fresh water, said Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who visited the disaster site on Sunday.
Widodo agreed to accept international help for disaster response and relief. The EU and South Korea offered $1.7 million and $1 million respectively, while the Australian government said it was working with Indonesia to identify options for assistance.
France also offered aid and said it “stands ready to provide support in connection with Indonesian authorities”.
In the chaos following the tragedy, Indonesian government officials said 1,200 convicts escaped from three detention facilities in the Sulawesi region.
Reports said that mobile phone signals were detected in the rubble of the shopping mall in Palu and screams were heard under the debris of the Roa Roa Hotel. Workers were scrambling to rescue 50 people trapped beneath its debris.
A Malaysian and a South Korean national were unaccounted for. Three French nationals, who were earlier reported missing, were found safe, the French Foreign Ministry said.
The Indonesian government said it evacuated 114 foreign nationals.
An early tsunami warning had been issued by the Indonesian meteorological agency but was later lifted after the agency ascertained that the water had receded.