Survivors leaving quake-stricken town in Indonesia as frustration grows over relief effort – Los Angeles Times/RTÉ


JAKARTA — Survivors were leaving the disaster-hit region of Central Sulawesi on Thursday, citing frustration with what they said was the slow provision of assistance from the Indonesian government and aid agencies in the aftermath of September 28’s magnitude 7.5 earthquake and tsunami.

Widely reported shortages of food, water, fuel and other necessities prompted looting of damaged shops and supermarkets in Palu, the provincial capital, a town of nearly 400,000 people that sits near the quake’s epicenter.

Though a few positive signs were emerging in the shattered city — such as access to water being restored for some residents — relief remained slow to arrive on damaged roads and ground that had been churned into mud. Residents said there isn’t enough food and water for the thousands of injured and 70,000 left homeless.

“The last I heard, my brother was picking up my mother and father in Palu to evacuate to another district,” said Imade Boby, a Jakarta resident whose parents and relatives live in the town. He said the family hoped to travel by boat or by road to Parigi Moutong, an area north of Palu less badly-hit by the disaster.

“The communications are bad. It is hard to keep up to date,” Boby said, expressing relief that his family survived.

Officials said Thursday that 1,424 people had died in the quake and ensuing tsunami. Waves that reached as high as 20 feet crashed over coastal parts of Central Sulawesi, a region almost 1,000 miles east of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

Hundreds of people have been buried so far this week, with mass funerals held to reduce the risk of disease spreading. Thousands of people have been evacuated by sea, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the national disaster agency spokesman, told reporters in Jakarta.

Despite promises of relief and the Indonesian government’s acceptance of international assistance, emergency crews were still struggling to reach areas outside Palu that were cut off by debris and damaged roads.

The aid effort so far has been concentrated in Palu, which has an airport capable of handling some military flights carrying relief supplies. By midweek, some heavy lifting equipment had arrived to clear rubble and assist in the increasingly desperate search for survivors buried under toppled buildings. But getting supplies to outlying areas, or bringing in enough excavators and other heavy equipment, has proven challenging and contributed to survivors’ frustration.

“The road access is not easy at all. Many are cracked or blocked by trees, power lines, parts of buildings,” said Husni, community engagement coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Irwan Firdaus, advocacy manager with Oxfam, said by phone from Palu that more heavy equipment was needed on the roads outside the town. “There are problems to deliver assistance: water, food, water purification,” Firdaus said.

The challenges for aid workers are compounded by Indonesia’s geography:  17,000 islands stretching across a distance roughly the same as from from Alaska to New York and sit on an area of heavy tectonic activity known as the Ring of Fire, which sees frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

On Wednesday, the volcano Mt. Soputan spewed ash 13,000 feet into the skies above Central Sulawesi. Although the eruption was not deemed a threat to the disaster-hit Palu region or to aircraft attempting to deliver aid, it highlighted the challenges of getting urgent help to remote regions of the archipelago.

With Palu’s damaged airport only able to handle a limited number of flights, an aid ship was dispatched Sunday from Jakarta and took until Thursday to reach Makassar, the biggest city on the island of Sulawesi. The cargo, including much-needed food and medical equipment, would take “probably another 24 hours” to be brought by road to Palu, nearly 600 miles north, Husni said.

In recent days, Red Cross teams have fanned out to areas outside Palu, where grim accounts of the devastation underlined officials’ warnings that the death toll would continue to rise as damage in those areas was fully assessed.

Balaroa, a village of about 2,000, “was really flattened,” Husni said. Satellite maps and aerial images captured since the quake show little more than bare earth where hundreds of houses stood before the quake and tsunami last Friday.

It was one of several locations that suffered a quake-related phenomenon known as liquefaction, which turns solid ground into a churning mire that swallows up buildings and spins structures hundreds of yards from their original location.

“Community leaders I spoke to don’t know how many people were buried,”  Husni said. “Some say maybe 50% of the people.”

Husni described meeting survivors who said a funeral had been taking place at the bottom of a hill as the earthquake hit. In the ensuing landslide, an unknown number of mourners were buried, he said.

“The quake sent soil from the top down,” Husni said. “They are not sure how many are buried.”

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