PALU, Indonesia – Aid was slowly making its way into areas devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that struck a central Indonesian island, with one neighborhood’s residents clapping, cheering and high-fiving in their excitement Wednesday at seeing a stopped truck laden with supplies.
“I’m so happy,” said Heruwanto, 63, who goes by one name. He was clutching a box of instant noodles. “I really haven’t eaten for three days.”
Food, water, fuel and medicine had yet to reach the hardest-hit areas outside Palu, the largest city heavily damaged in Friday’s disaster. Many roads were broken and split by the violent shaking or blocked by debris. Communications were limited.
“We feel like we are stepchildren here because all the help is going to Palu,” said Mohamad Taufik, 38, from the town of Donggala, where five of his relatives are still missing. “There are many young children here who are hungry and sick, but there is no milk or medicine.”
The official death toll was 1,234 with hundreds injured, but officials acknowledged scores of uncounted bodies could still be buried in collapsed buildings in Sigi and Balaroa.
The U.N. humanitarian office said “needs are vast,” with people urgently requiring shelter, clean water, food, fuel and emergency medical care.
Water is the main issue because most of the supply infrastructure has been damaged, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York. He said the government is coordinating emergency efforts, and U.N. and relief agencies are on the ground or en route.
More than 25 countries offered assistance after Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo appealed for international help. Little of that, however, has reached the disaster zone, and increasingly desperate residents grabbed food and fuel from damaged stores and begged for help. Widodo visited the disaster zone Wednesday, saying there’s still work to be done, but that conditions were improving with businesses starting to reopen, helping people to start returning their lives to normal. He said President Donald Trump called him Tuesday night, offering assistance.
“We are going in phases. There are lots of things happening related to evacuation, as aid and fuel are also coming in,” he said, noting that 30 people remain buried under rubble at the Roa Roa Hotel in Palu. “Every province has different cases, including security.”
Some homeless residents weren’t waiting for help. Dozens sifted through what remained of a flattened complex of warehouses along Palu’s ravaged coastline, looking for anything they could salvage to help them rebuild or sell. They carted away corrugated metal, wood, piping and other items.
“We have to do this because there’s no assistance from the government,” said Zaitun Rajamangili, 41, adding his home was swept away but his family survived.
An aircraft carrying 3,170 gallons of fuel had arrived, and trucks with food were on the way with police escorts to guard against looters. Many gas stations were inoperable either because of quake damage or from people stealing fuel, national disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said in Jakarta.
Indonesian military chief Hadi Tjahyanto said one armed soldier and one armed police officer would be placed on every aid truck and soldiers would be sent to secure markets, the airport and fuel depots to maintain order. He added that a Singaporean military transport plane will help evacuate victims from the airport in Palu.
Teams continued searching for survivors under destroyed homes and buildings.
Many people were believed trapped under shattered houses in the Palu neighborhood of Balaroa, where the earthquake caused the ground to heave up and down violently. A handful of disaster personnel arrived in the neighborhood Tuesday morning. A lone backhoe cleared a path into the jumble of twisted buildings.
Sa’Adon Lawira, who lost a grandchild, was angry that rescue efforts focused so quickly on places such as the Palu hotel where tourists were staying.
“Why did the search-and-rescue agency and others prioritize the search for victims in hotels?” he said, holding back tears as he spoke. “Neighborhoods like this should take precedence because the bodies of residents are buried, but there are no rescuers who have searched for them.”
Near the coast, the tsunami shattered buildings, uprooted concrete and thrust boats inland. The deadly wave reportedly reached as high as nearly 20 feet in places.
In Palu’s Petobo neighborhood, the quake caused loose soil to liquefy, creating quicksand-like mud that caused massive damage. Hundreds of victims are still believed to be buried in the mud there.
Liquefaction is a known phenomenon of earthquakes and can be compared to walking on a sandy beach.
“If you walk across some wet sand a little back from the water’s edge, it is usually firm walking, even though you might leave footprints,” said Adam Switzer, an expert at the Earth Observatory of Singapore. “However, if you stand still and wiggle your toes and feet, you will probably sink a little as the sand around your feet becomes soft and unstable. This is similar to what happens during liquefaction.”
Australia announced it will send 50 medical professionals as part of a $3.6 million aid package. The United States and China are among other countries that have offered assistance.
The U.N.’s Haq said the Indonesian Ministry of Social Affairs has asked the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, to send social workers to the affected area to support children who are alone or became separated from their families. And he said the World Health Organization is warning that a lack of shelter and damaged water sanitation facilities could lead to outbreaks of communicable diseases.
Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 260 million people, is frequently struck by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis because of its location on the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin. A powerful quake on the island of Lombok killed 505 people in August.
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