PALU: Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo made a second visit to Sulawesi island on Wednesday to ramp up relief efforts following a devastating earthquake and tsunami, as survivors pleaded for water, food and fuel five days after the disaster struck.
The official death toll from the 7.5 magnitude quake that hit the west coast of Sulawesi last Friday rose to 1,407, many killed by tsunami waves it triggered.
But officials fear the toll could soar, as most of the confirmed dead have come from Palu, a small city 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of Jakarta, and losses in remote areas remain unknown, as communications are down, and bridges and roads have been destroyed or blocked by landslides.
Underlining a growing sense of urgency, Widodo made his second visit to the disaster zone, putting on an orange hard hat to talk to rescue workers at a collapsed hotel in Palu.
“What I’ve observed after returning now is heavy equipment has arrived, logistics have started to arrive although it’s not at maximum yet, fuel has partly arrived,” Widodo told reporters.
National disaster mitigation agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said most of the aid effort had been concentrated in Palu, where electricity supply has still to be restored.
But rescue workers have begun to reach more remote areas in a disaster zone that encompasses 1.4 million people.
Aid worker Lian Gogali described a perilous situation in Donggala, a district of 300,000 people, which includes towns strung along a coast road north of Palu close to the quake’s epicentre.
“Everyone is desperate for food and water. There’s no food, water, or gasoline. The government is missing,” Gogali said, adding that her aid group had only been able to send in a trickle of rations by motorbike.
Aid lands in Palu
Yahdi Basma, a leader from a village south of Palu hoping to get his family on a cargo plane out, said Widodo had no idea of the extent of the suffering.
“The president is not hearing about the remote areas, only about the tsunami and about Palu,” he said.
“There are hundreds of people still buried under the mud in my village. I lost many members of my family and neighbours. There is no aid whatsoever which is why we’re leaving.”
Widodo, who will seek re-election next year, called on Tuesday for reinforcements in the search for victims, saying everyone had to be found. He repeated that on Wednesday, after inspecting what he called an “evacuation” effort at the Hotel Roa Roa, where he said some 30 people lay buried in the ruins.
At least seven cargo planes arrived at Palu airport earlier on Wednesday carrying tonnes of aid, some bedecked in the red and white national colours and stamped with the presidential office seal declaring: “Assistance from the President of Republic of Indonesia”.
The quake brought down hotels, shopping malls and thousands of houses in Palu, while tsunami waves as high as six metres (20 feet) scoured its beachfront shortly afterwards.
About 1,700 houses in one neighbourhood were swallowed up by ground liquefaction, which happens when soil shaken by an earthquake behaves like a liquid, and hundreds of people are believed to have perished, the disaster agency said.
Adding to Sulawesi’s woes, the Soputan volcano in the north of the island, about 600 km (375 miles) northeast of Palu, erupted early on Wednesday but there were no reports of any casualties or damage. Ash was not expected to disrupt flights.
Nugroho said aircraft, tents, water treatment facilities and generators were the main needs for survivors including more than 70,000 displaced people.
Police have done little to stop outbreaks of looting. The government has played down the problem, saying victims could take essentials and shops would be compensated.
The government has said it would accept offers of international aid, after shunning outside help this year when two major earthquakes struck Lombok island, south of Sulawesi.
Sitting on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to quakes and tsunamis. A quake in 2004 triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.
US President Donald Trump extended condolences in a phone call with Widodo, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington. The United States has provided initial funding, deployed government disaster experts and was working to determine what other help can be given, she said.