Water ‘was twice the size of my house’: Fears for thousands as quake toll climbs


The death toll after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that struck the Indonesian island of Sulawesi has reached 832 as authorities begin to gain access to hard to reach locations.

The National Disaster Management Agency has warned, however, that casualties will rise as evacuations continue, including from the rubble of an eight-storey hotel and housing complex in the coastal city of Palu.

Vice-President Jusuf Kalla warned overnight on Saturday that the death toll could reach well into the thousands, which would make it one of the deadliest natural disasters in Indonesia since the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Aceh.

People survey the damage following a massive earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

RIFKI/AP

People survey the damage following a massive earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The Australian government said it was not aware of any Australians affected by the earthquake but was continuing to make inquiries with local authorities.

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Mr Sutopo said 71 foreign nationals were being evacuated from Palu.

Rescue officials fear the full scale of Indonesia's earthquake and tsunami could climb far past the more than 800 already confirmed dead, as several large coastal towns remained cut off Sunday by damaged roads and downed communication lines.

TATAN SYUFLANA/AP

Rescue officials fear the full scale of Indonesia’s earthquake and tsunami could climb far past the more than 800 already confirmed dead, as several large coastal towns remained cut off Sunday by damaged roads and downed communication lines.

He said the local government had declared an emergency status until October 14 to streamline the response to the disaster. Clean water and fuel were urgently needed.

The four worst hit areas were Palu city, Parigi regency, Sigi regency and Donggala regency, with 209 aftershocks shaking the region as of noon local time on Sunday.

Corpses lined the coastal city of Palu as the National Disaster Management Agency continued the grim process of identifying those who died.

Rescuers carry an earthquake survivor at restaurant building damaged by a massive earthquakes and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

TATAN SYUFLANA/AP

Rescuers carry an earthquake survivor at restaurant building damaged by a massive earthquakes and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Evacuations continued of victims buried under the rubble of what was once the Roa-Roa Hotel in Palu, the capital city of Central Sulawesi. Fifty people are believed to still be trapped.

“Evacuation is not easy, there is lots of debris and we need more heavy vehicles,” Mr Sutopo said.

“There is big shortage of fuel. We are trying to get it from neighbouring areas. We are trying to fix the communication network.”

Rescuers check an earthquake survivor at restaurant building damaged by a massive earthquakes and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

TATAN SYUFLANA/AP

Rescuers check an earthquake survivor at restaurant building damaged by a massive earthquakes and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

In the disaster zone near Palu in a region called Sigi, Rahmat told Fairfax Media that when a water embankment broke, it caused a tsunami-like wave that looked like to be 10 metres high. “It was twice the size of my house, I hung on to a tree survive.”

“My family is taking refuge up a hill, yesterday and today we have only only eaten two papayas between 20 family members. Every time we hear something on the radio it is about Palu. We need food, we need water, we need it now!”

At a makeshift refugee camp nearby, a group of about 50 men, women and children have been sleeping between their crops in open fields.

People survey the damage following a massive earthquake and tsunami. The death toll could be in the thousands.

RIFKI/AP

People survey the damage following a massive earthquake and tsunami. The death toll could be in the thousands.

They faced another night outside on Sunday, their food and fuel was rapidly running out and they were sharing one generator.

Food, water and fuel is in desperately short supply, with petrol being bought and on-sold at a mark-up.

In Sigi, people with broken bones and open wounds have now gone three days without medical treatment. The smell of dead bodies permeates the air, house after house has been smashed and power lines have been ripped out of the ground and thrown metres down the road.

Mr Sutopo said there was a shortage of staple food, which was why people could take supplies from shops and the government would pay.

The military has sent troops to erect more field hospitals and Hercules helicopters were bringing in food, baby supplies and medical equipment. There is also a shortage of doctors.

Of the recorded deaths, 821 were in Palu and 11 in Donggala, which is about 30 kilometres away.

The real death toll, however, was expected to be far higher in Donggala because it was the epicentre of the quake.

“The blackout, lack of electricity caused no communication services and that’s why we have limited information from some areas,” Mr Sutopo said.

“We just cannot get any information from volunteers who have gone into these areas because communication is still cut off.”

About 2.4 million people live on the Palu-Koro fault line. Palu is home to about 330,000 people and Donggala about 270,000 people.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was “terribly saddened” to hear of the tragic events and Australia “stands ready to assist”.

He had called Indonesian President Joko Widodo overnight to express his sympathies and pledge support: “If he needs our help, he’ll have it.”

Buildings and trees were swept away near Palu due to liquefaction, a process where the sheer amount of liquid in the soil turned it into a watery mud.

Prison inmates fled when a jail partially collapsed in Palu, with half of its 560 convicts going missing.

“We had limited number of guards and they were panic trying to save themselves because some walls collapsed. It was an extraordinary incident,” the prison head, Ady Yan Ricoh said.

Looters ransacked a badly damaged mall in Palu. “It is believed there are still people trapped in the mall,” said a reporter from MetroTV. “I can smell the very strong odour of decaying bodies.”

One man, Ferry, said he was looking for his wife. “I wanted to go to the hospital to look for her,” he told MetroTV.

“But my neighbour said I should first check the mall. So I went here and found her bag. I remember she wore jeans and carried this black bag.”

Palu airport reopened to commercial flights on Sunday, although humanitarian and emergency flights were prioritised.

In Makassar, the largest city on Sulawesi, thousands of people scrambled to find flights that would take them to the disaster zone. The Indonesian military provided about 100 seats per flight on their Hercules aircraft for those seeking to go home, but emergency supplies were given priority.

Nikita waited at the airport from Saturday afternoon, desperate to get home to her husband and two-year-old son. She had only had brief contact with some of her family, and her aunt and uncle were thought to have been swept away in the tsunami.

“Can you please help me, can’t you ask someone to find my son? Please, please, can you ask anyone, his name is Zidan Anugrah Pratama, he’s two,” she said, showing a photo of her son and husband.

“None of my family members saw them. I don’t know what has happened to them.”

Former AusAid Deputy Director General Peter McCawley said Australia’s offer of financial assistance should be immediate and unconditional.

“Aid donors often attach onerous conditions to the provision of aid. But the inclusion of conditionality in an offer of emergency aid such as this would be inappropriate,” he said in the Lowy Institute.

“Second, Australian support should be provided in close cooperation with key Indonesian agencies.”

This latest tragedy comes about seven weeks after the Indonesian islands of Lombok and Bali were devastated by a series of earthquakes that killed at least 623 people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings.

Indonesia sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is regularly hit by earthquakes.

In 2004, an earthquake off the northern Indonesian island of Sumatra triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean, killing 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Red Cross Australia spokesman Ian Wolverton said the agency had been on the ground from the outset and while the full extent of the destruction was unknown but “it is clear the humanitarian impact is very high”.

The agency was ready to send ambulance crews, first aid responders, assessment teams and logisticians, he added.

 



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