Indonesians step up search for quake victims to beat deadline as toll exceeds 2,000

PALU, Indonesia (Reuters) - Rescue workers in Indonesia stepped up their search for victims of an earthquake and tsunami on Tuesday, hoping to find as many bodies as they can before this week’s deadline for their work to halt, as the official death toll rose to 2,010.

The national disaster mitigation agency has called off the search from Thursday, citing concern about the spread of disease. Debris would be cleared and areas where bodies lie would eventually be turned into parks, sports venues and memorials.

Perhaps as many as 5,000 victims of the 7.5 magnitude quake and tsunami on Sept. 28 have yet to be found, most of them entombed in flows of mud flows that surged from the ground when the quake agitated the soil into a liquid mire.

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Health fears turn from injury to disease as Indonesia quake toll rises above 2,000

Most of the bodies have been found in the seaside city of Palu, on the west coast of Sulawesi island, 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of the capital, Jakarta.

More than 10,000 rescue workers are scouring expanses of debris, especially in three areas obliterated by soil liquefaction in the south of the small city.

“We’re not sure what will happen afterwards, so we’re trying to work as fast as possible,” said rescue worker Ahmad Amin, 29, referring to the deadline, as he took a break in the badly hit Balaroa neighborhood.

At least nine excavators were working through the rubble of Balaroa on Tuesday, picking their way through smashed buildings and pummeled vehicles. At least a dozen bodies were recovered, a Reuters photographer said.

“There are so many children still missing, we want to find them quickly,” said Amin, who is from Balaroa and has relatives unaccounted for. “It doesn’t matter if it’s my family or not, the important thing is that we find as many as we can.”

The state disaster mitigation agency said the search was being stepped up and focused more intensely on areas where many people are believed to be buried.

The decision to end the search has angered some relatives of the missing but taxi driver Rudy Rahman, 40, said he had to accept it.

“As long as they keep searching, I will be here every day looking for my son,” said Rahman, who said he had lost three sons in the disaster. The bodies of two were found, the youngest is missing.

“This is the only thing I can do, otherwise I would go insane,” he said, choking back tears. “If they stop, what can I do? There are four meters of soil here. I couldn’t do it on my own.”

‘POLITICAL SENSITIVITIES’

While Indonesian workers searched, the disaster agency ordered independent foreign aid workers to leave the quake zone.

Indonesia has traditionally been reluctant to be seen as relying on outside help to cope with disasters, and the government shunned foreign aid this year when earthquakes struck the island of Lombok.

But it has accepted help from abroad to cope with the Sulawesi disaster.

The disaster agency, in a notice posted on Twitter, set the rules out for foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs), saying they were not allowed to “go directly to the field” and could only work with “local partners”.

“Foreign citizens who are working with foreign NGOs are not allowed to conduct any activity on the sites,” it said, adding that foreign NGOs with people deployed should withdraw them immediately.

A few foreign aid workers have been in the disaster zone, including a team from the group Pompiers Humanitaires Francais that searched for survivors, but they have spoken of difficulties in getting entry permits and authorization.

“This is the first time we encountered such difficulty in actually getting to do our work,” team leader Arnaud Allibert told Reuters, adding they were leaving on Wednesday as their help was no longer needed.

Indonesian governments are wary of being too open to outside help because they could face criticism from political opponents and there is particular resistance to the presence of foreign military personnel, as it could be seen as an infringement of sovereignty.

“There are political sensitivities, especially with an election coming up, and sovereignty is another issue,” said Keith Loveard, a senior analyst with advisory and risk firm Concord Consulting, referring to polls due next year.

Sulawesi is one of Indonesia’s five main islands. The archipelago sees frequent earthquakes and occasional tsunami.

In 2004, a quake off Sumatra island triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Foreign governments and groups played a big role in aid efforts in 2004.

  • Published in World

After Indonesia's Tsunami-Earthquake Disaster, Scientists Look For Cause

Jakarta: Almost a week after a quake-tsunami wreaked devastation in central Indonesia, scientists are zeroing in on what they believe caused the highly unusual natural disaster.

The 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit off Sulawesi island Friday and sent destructive waves charging into the coast, reducing buildings in Palu to rubble and sweeping people to their deaths.

The city was not regarded as being at high-risk of a tsunami and was left grossly unprepared for the catastrophe, which has so far claimed more than 1,400 lives with hundreds more injured and missing. 

Now experts are piecing together the unlikely chain of events which laid waste to Palu.

The quake was a sideways -- rather than vertical -- movement of tectonic plates, seen as unlikely to generate a tsunami.

p3lkbr6"It's very unlikely the earthquake alone could generate a tsunami of that size", tsunami experts have said. 

But after sifting through mounds of data, scientists believe that the powerful tremor occurred over the vast length of a fault line, triggering underwater landslides that caused the tidal waves.

"This is an earthquake that is not the standard mechanism to generate a tsunami," Costas Synolakis, director of the University of Southern California's Tsunami Research Center, told AFP.


"It's fairly rare."

When the monster waves did roll in, their force was intensified as they rushed down a narrow bay into Palu.

In recent years Sumatra has been the main focus of authorities' concern when it comes to tsunamis as Aceh, on the island's northern tip, was devastated by a deadly quake-triggered tsunami in 2004. 

Officials fear another major quake and tsunami are inevitable at some point on the highly volatile fault line off the island's west coast, meaning there was greater vigilance towards the threat than in Sulawesi.

Apart from a handful of tsunami experts, few seemed worried that the fault line that cut through Palu would produce a tsunami, particularly as it is what is known as a "strike-slip" fault, where tectonic plates move sideways. 

In the Aceh tsunami and the majority of others, destructive waves were generated by a violent upward thrust of the Earth's crust, not a sideways movement.

But such was the force of the quake off Sulawesi and the aftershocks that followed, one or more underwater landslides are believed to have occurred that displaced huge quantities of water and sent waves barrelling into the coast.

'Have to learn from this'

"There is reasonable confidence that this tsunami was triggered at least partially by a landslide," Adam Switzer, a tsunami expert from Nanyang Technological University's Earth Observatory of Singapore, told AFP.

"It's very unlikely the earthquake alone could generate a tsunami of that size."

Even before the tsunami hit, the quake and the aftershocks that followed caused widespread devastation along the Sulawesi coast, with many buildings left in ruins and huge cracks ripped in roads. 

But with officials not expecting such a catastrophic event in the area, Palu seemed ill-prepared. 

A tsunami alert was issued at the national level when the quake hit but was lifted soon afterwards and it is not clear if there was an effective mechanism to relay the warning to people on the ground in Sulawesi. 

And the city's tide-monitoring station, which could have detected the destructive waves, was broken on the day, authorities have admitted.

But while many in Indonesia were surprised that the disaster hit Palu, scientists say there are other examples of such quakes. 

Of about 35 tsunamis documented since 1992, four are believed to have been caused by quake-triggered undersea landslides, but none were in Indonesia, according to Synolakis.

Despite the criticism that authorities were unprepared, seismologists have been more forgiving -- they say the chain of events was so complicated it would have been hard for even advanced warning systems to detect the tsunami.

"This is something the automated systems could not really anticipate," Synolakis said. 

Switzer said and his colleagues were working flat out to figure out exactly what happened, and it would likely be a long process.

"We really need to make sure that we understand this event, because we have to learn from this," he said.

The Indonesia Earthquake-Tsunami Disaster In Numbers

Jakarta: Here are the latest figures highlighting the scale of devastation wrought by Indonesia's earthquake and tsunami:

The dead, the wounded
So far Indonesian authorities have counted 1,407 dead from the double disaster on Sulawesi island, a toll expected to rise as they reach outlying areas. Some 519 victims have already been buried.

Rescuers are searching for what they believe are 152 people still trapped under rubble. 

Among the survivors, 70,821 people have been displaced and are now being housed at 141 locations.

The race is on to get them food and other essential supplies. But the scale of the problem may be much bigger than that. 

The United Nations' disaster relief agency says up to 191,000 people are in urgent need of assistance, with more than 934 communities likely affected.

The World Health Organization estimates that 310,000 people have been affected at the quake's epicentre in Donggala regency, along with 350,000 in neighbouring Palu.

The road to recovery will be long. More than 600 schools and tens of thousands of homes will have to be patched up or rebuilt, a task made more difficult by more than 350 aftershocks.

Security forces
Indonesia's military has taken the lead in the recovery effort, flying in supplies and evacuating survivors on C130 Hercules transport planes. Among those evacuated are 120 foreigners -- two less than originally thought -- including 32 from Thailand and 19 from Germany.

In total the government has deployed 3,169 military personnel as well as 2,033 police officers.

They are being called on to keep the peace, with looting leading to at least 65 arrests.

Shortfall 
The military will be assisted in the relief effort by international organisations and at least 29 countries who have offered everything from sarongs to geospatial mapping services.

Singapore has also offered two Hercules, South Korea two more, the United Kingdom one and Japan two.

According to the United Nations' estimates responders will need to supply 571,000 litres of water a day -- or enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every four days -- and 659,000 square metres of shelter, around one and a half times the size of Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

They will also have to provide the region with around 401 million calories' worth of food a day, or the equivalent of around 1.8 million Big Macs.

  • Published in World
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