Indonesia appeals for help amid race to reach quake survivors as death toll rises

People survey the mosque damaged in a massive earthquake and a tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi in Indonesia. (AP)
People survey the mosque damaged in a massive earthquake and a tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi in Indonesia. (AP)

Volunteers dug mass graves for more than 1,000 bodies on Monday after a quake and tsunami devastated swathes of Sulawesi as Indonesian authorities struggling to deal with the sheer scale of the disaster appealed for international help.

The confirmed toll of 832 dead looked certain to rise as rescuers slowly reached devastated outlying communities hit on Friday by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami waves as high as six metres.

Indonesia is no stranger to natural calamities and the authorities in Jakarta were keen to show they could deal with such a calamity.

But four days on some remote areas have yet to be contacted, medicines are running out and rescuers are struggling with a shortage of heavy equipment to reach desperate victims calling out from the ruins of collapsed buildings.

In response, President Joko Widodo opened the door to the dozens of international aid agencies and NGOs lined up to provide assistance.

“Last night, President @jokowi authorized us to accept international help for urgent disaster-response & relief,” senior government official Tom Lembong wrote on Twitter, asking rescuers to contact him directly via his account and email.

Officials fear the toll will rise steeply in the coming days and are preparing for the worst.

At Poboya – in the hills above the devastated seaside city of Palu – volunteers dug a 100 metre-long grave to bury the dead, with instructions to prepare for 1,300 victims to be laid to rest.

Authorities are desperate to stave off any disease outbreak caused by decomposing bodies and have announced a 14-day state of emergency.

‘When the wave came, I lost her’

In Balaroa, a Palu suburb once home to a housing complex, the scale of the damage was apparent. A wasteland of flattened trees, shards of concrete, twisted metal roofing, doorframes and mangled furniture stretched out into the distance.

Rescuers are racing against the clock and a lack of equipment to save those still trapped in the rubble, with up to 60 people feared to be underneath one Palu hotel alone.

Two survivors have been plucked from the 80-room Hotel Roa-Roa, Indonesia’s search and rescue agency said, and there could still be more alive.

Desperate survivors turned to looting shops for basics like food, water and fuel as police looked on, unwilling or unable to intervene.

“There has been no aid, we need to eat. We don’t have any other choice, we must get food,” one man in Palu told AFP as he filled a basket with goods from a nearby store.

The disaster agency said a tsunami warning system, which might have saved lives, had not worked for six years due to a lack of money.

“Our funding has been going down every year,” agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said.

Many have spent the last days desperately searching for loved ones while dealing with the trauma of the disaster.

One survivor, Adi, was hugging his wife by the beach when the tsunami struck on Friday. He has no idea where she is now, or whether she is alive.

“When the wave came, I lost her,” he said. “I was carried about 50 metres. I couldn’t hold anything.”

Others have centred their search for loved ones around open-air morgues, where the dead lay in the baking sun – waiting to be claimed, waiting to be named.

Ring of fire

As dire as the situation in Palu is, it was at least clear. In outlying areas, the fate of thousands is still unknown.

Indonesia’s Metro TV broadcast aerial footage from a coastal community in Donggala, close to the epicentre of the quake. Some waterfront homes appeared crushed but a resident said most people fled to higher ground after the quake struck.

“When it shook really hard, we all ran up into the hills,” a man identified as Iswan told the TV.

Yenni Suryani, of Catholic Relief Services, said devastated infrastructure was hampering rescue efforts.

“Humanitarian groups are struggling to get people into affected areas,” she said. The main airport at Palu was damaged, landslides had cut off key roads while “power is out almost everywhere”, she added.

Satellite imagery provided by regional relief teams showed severe damage at some of the area’s major ports, with large ships tossed on land, quays and bridges trashed and shipping containers thrown around.

Indonesia, home to 260 million people, is one of the world’s most disaster-prone nations.

It lies on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, where tectonic plates collide and many of the world’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.

A massive 2004 quake triggered a tsunami that killed 220,000 throughout the region, including 168,000 in Indonesia.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)