More than 1,300 now dead from Indonesia quake, tsunami

The death toll from last week’s severe earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia has skyrocketed to more than 1,300, officials said Tuesday.

Indonesian firefighters search under debris in Palu city, Indonesia, on Tuesday. More than 1,300 people have died from the earthquake and tsunami that hit Friday. Photo by Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA-EFE
Indonesian firefighters search under debris in Palu city, Indonesia, on Tuesday. More than 1,300 people have died from the earthquake and tsunami that hit Friday. Photo by Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA-EFE

Indonesian government officials said Tuesday at least 1,347 people have died as a result of the disasters — a 7.5-magnitude quake Friday that hit the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and generated an 18-foot tsunami wave.
The death toll saw a dramatic increase over Monday, when it was below 900. The number could rise because of the severe damage on the island and the number of persons still missing.

“We don’t know how many people have been buried in the mud because of liquefaction and land sinking,” said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency.

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The United Nations reported that rescuers are grappling with thick mud to recover bodies from a youth bible study group at a collapsed church in Sigi Biromaru district, south of Palu.

“It took them one-and-a-half hours to carry each of the bodies out to nearby ambulances, having to wade through incredibly deep mud,” said Matthew Cochrane, spokesperson for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“The sense from the teams all working there … is one of real frustration that “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.”

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The full scope of damage is not yet known. U.N. agencies are having difficulty reaching coastal and central areas of Sulawesi, a UNICEF spokesperson said.

Nugroho said resources are scarce.

“Everything is still limited — logistics, fuel, tents, mattresses, blankets, clean water, clothing and so on.”

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Mass Organization Yaskum Indonesia Central Sulawesi has distributed drinking water to survivors in Palu. Chairman Andi Mulhanan Tambolotutu said residents were allowed to get clean water, but there’s a waiting line because of the office’s fragile condition. Tambolotutu said more fuel is needed to run the drinking water machines.

Police were initially being lenient as people searched desperately for basic items such as food, fuel and water, but police chief Ari Dono Sukmanto said that they “now re-enforcing the law,” to stop looters since “food supply started to came in” two days after the storm, which “only needed to be distributed.”

Crews are working to clear away debris and recover bodies, and mass graves are being dug as rescuers try to reach Donggala. More than 2.4 million have been impacted by the disasters.

Indonesia President Joko Widodo has authorized foreign aid from 18 countries — including the United States, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — but none had arrived by Tuesday, The Washington Post reported. Officials have asked for C-130 aircraft to transport evacuees and aid, and said Singapore and the United States are preparing to assist.

Google CEO Sundar Pinchai tweeted the company would donate $1 million in aid.

Indonesia did not accept foreign aid after the Lombok earthquakes in August killed more than 500, injured 1,600 and displaced 445,000, but the disaster management agency urged people not to forget that thousands there still need help.

BySommer Brokaw