NUSA DUA — Indonesian authorities on Friday plan to end the search operation launched after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the island of Sulawesi late last month, killing more than 2,000 people.
Indonesia’s disaster agency Thursday evening had placed the death toll at 2,073, but officials also have acknowledged about 5,000 people may be missing.
Many victims are thought to have been killed when the magnitude 7.5 earthquake turned solid ground into near-liquid and submerged hundreds of houses in what is now a sun-baked casing in Palu, the regional capital of Central Sulawesi, where most of the casualties took place.
The Sept. 28 earthquake generated a 10-to-20-foot-high tsunami that lifted boats ashore and pulled victims out to sea, according to accounts given by Indonesian naval search teams. Hundreds died when hotels and a mall collapsed in Palu, while dozens of bodies of schoolchildren were found under the mangled, earth-covered ruins of a church where they had been attending Bible classes.
About 10,000 workers will conclude the official search, which was extended by a day to Friday after appeals from relatives of the missing. The search-and-rescue effort had been hampered by a lack, until recent days, of sufficient heavy equipment such as diggers and excavators.
The end of the search will come as Indonesia hosts finance ministers from around the world, including U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank holding their annual meetings at Nusa Dua on the island of Bali.
Delegates to the meetings experienced a stark reminder of Indonesia’s susceptibility to earthquakes early Thursday, when three people were killed in a magnitude 6.4 temblor that struck off the island of Java, shaking houses and hotels on Bali, the island immediately east of Java where the finance meetings are taking place.
The Indonesian government relented on its usual reluctance to permit aid from foreign governments, given the extent of the disaster and the slow pace of relief, but has since said that foreign aid workers should not operate in the disaster zone unless accompanied by a local counterpart.
Hundreds of mostly Indonesian aid workers continued to distribute relief items to the nearly 88,000 people left homeless by the disaster, after days of slow access to the region, which is a near-three-hour flight from Jakarta. The impact of the 7.5 quake cracked roads and left rocks and debris blocking routes outside Palu to rural areas and smaller towns.
By midweek, many of the roads to remote regions were passable, but mostly still to smaller trucks and cars, said Irwan Firdaus, an aid worker with Oxfam in Indonesia.
The main routes across Sulawesi to Palu had been opened up to larger relief convoys.