JAKARTA — A week on from the deadly magnitude 7.5 earthquake and 10-20 feet hight tsunami that hit Central Sulawesi in the northeast of the Indonesian archipelago, survivors gathered on the beach in Palu, the regional capital, for a communal prayer ceremony to honour the dead.
The sombre coming together for worship took place on Friday, as local authorities buried hundreds of dead in mass graves, almost 700 in one pit, a measure meant to forestall the spread of disease.
The national disaster management agency said earlier on Friday that the number of confirmed dead stood at 1,571, a number that is almost certain rise given that information from and road access to rural areas outside Palu has been slow to materialise.
Jusuf Kalla, the Indonesia vice-president and a Sulawesi native, visited Palu on Friday. He previously said the death toll would be in the “thousands.” However it may prove impossible, in the end, to account for the number of deaths, as hundreds of homes, perhaps thousands, were engulfed in mud and debris in a grisly phenomenon known as liquefaction, when the force of an earthquake turns solid ground into a churning mire.
“There are still hundreds of victims buried in mud,” said Sutopo Nugroho, the disaster agency spokesman, speaking on Oct. 2 about the Petobo area of Palu.
Survivors are struggling with a myriad of food and water shortages, power and phone line outages, destroyed homes, trauma, injuries and the slow pace of relief as authorities struggle to navigate damaged, debris-strewn roads.
Heavy-lifting equipment was slow to deploy to the region, and by Friday was excavating the ruins of a downed mall in Palu where hundreds of people were thought to have been buried.
Wahyu Widayanto, CARE’s emergency response coordinator on the ground in Palu, said that accessing money and food is difficult. In an updated posted online by CARE, Mr. Wahyu said “there are currently only 2 banks that have re-opened and just some small food stores which aren’t sufficient for the community here. Gasoline is limited and drinking water is a problem and a real basic need.”
Dini Widiastuti, Executive Director of Yayasan Plan International Indonesia, a local organisation affiliated with the international NGO Plan International, described a challenging conditions for getting relief items such as tents to survivors, many of who are sleeping outdoors.
“Warehousing, storage, channels of transportation, these are all difficult,” she said, speaking by telephone.
Compounding delivery of aid is Indonesia’s geography: an archipelago spanning around 3,000 miles that sits on the tectonically active “Ring of Fire.” Palu is almost a thousand miles northeast of capital Jakarta. There are three main avenues for assistance to the affected region, home to around 1.5million people: Balikpapan a city on the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo, or Kalimantan, as well as Makassar, the biggest city Sulawesi, from where it can take a day by road, and via the airport in Palu itself.
“It is difficult to move aid around, the airport is operating but limited. We can send more by boat, and it is less expensive, but air is faster,” Ms. Dini said. “From Jakarta, it can take 7 days to Makassar by boat.”
“We are in the process of purchasing simple, but life-saving items, like blankets, tarpaulins, water buckets and water purification kits. We will source them locally on the island from our base in Makassar. And we are also looking at creative ways we can bring items by boat to neighboring islands like Kalimantan, and from there, onwards by plane to Palu, said CARE’s Wahyu Widayanto.
*contribution to a jointly-authored story with a correspondent in PaluShow