Palu: An international aid effort to help tens of thousands of victims of Indonesia’s quake-tsunami disaster swung into gear Thursday after days of delays, with planes flying in vital supplies for shattered communities.
A total of 1,424 people have been confirmed dead and over 2,500 injured after the monster earthquake struck Friday, sending destructive waves barrelling into Sulawesi island.
The double disaster reduced buildings in the seaside city of Palu to rubble — but aid has been slow to arrive and looting has broken out.
On Thursday, police armed with guns stood guard outside petrol stations to ensure order in long, winding queues. Trucks carrying supplies have reportedly been ransacked en route to Palu.
Authorities initially turned a blind eye but now police have been rounding up dozens of suspected looters and the military warned that soldiers will fire on anyone caught stealing.
While rescuers continue to comb through destroyed buildings, hope is fading that anyone will be found alive under the rubble. Authorities say over 100 people are still unaccounted for.
Hundreds have been buried in mass graves as overwhelmed authorities race to avert a disease outbreak from corpses rotting in the tropical heat.
The Indonesian government initially refused to accept international help, insisting its own military could handle the response, but as the scale of the disaster became clear President Joko Widodo reluctantly agreed to allow in overseas aid.
Efforts to get desperately needed aid to hungry and thirsty victims, many now homeless and sleeping in evacuation camps, were slow to get off the ground due to severed transport links.
Palu airport, badly damaged in the twin disaster, finally re-opened to all flights Thursday, allowing the international aid effort to ramp up.
“The government of Indonesia is experienced and well-equipped in managing natural disasters, but sometimes, as with all other countries, outside help is also needed,” said United Nations aid chief Mark Lowcock, announcing the UN was pledging $15 million towards the recovery effort.
– ‘There is always hope’ –
Air force chief Yuyu Sutisna said foreign governments, including Singapore, South Korea and Britain, were sending 20 planes to help in the relief effort.
Australia and New Zealand are sending air force transport planes to Indonesia carrying tarpaulins, generators and water containers. A team of French rescuers were in Palu and helping search teams on Thursday, while NGO Oxfam said it expects to be on the ground by Saturday.
An Indonesian navy ship docked in the city carrying water and food, which was loaded by soldiers onto trucks.
“We have to get to places where people need aid really quickly,” said first admiral Dwi Sulaksono.
Desperate survivors, some crying, waited to get a spot on the vessel which was set to return to the city of Makassar in southern Sulawesi, and brief scuffles broke out with soldiers.
A missing South Korean has been confirmed dead, Seoul’s foreign ministry said, in the first recorded foreigner fatality.
A Belgian remains missing while over 100 other foreigners in the ravaged area have been evacuated, the disaster agency said.
Indonesia, which has a longstanding problem with “fake news”, vowed to clamp down after false reports related to the disaster circulated online, including one saying another quake had hit Sulawesi.
Police said Thursday they arrested nine suspected online hoaxers, fearing fake online reports could sow panic among suffering survivors.
“If you spread this kind of information, you’re just going to create more suffering and confusion for people,” said Daryono, head of the geophysics agency’s quake and tsunami information centre, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
Rescuers seeking survivors are focusing on half a dozen key sites around Palu, including a shopping mall and the Balaroa area where the sheer force of the quake turned the earth temporarily to mush.
At the badly damaged Mercure hotel, a team of Indonesian rescuers working with French NGO International Emergency Firefighters used sniffer dogs and high-tech equipment to search for survivors.
– ‘No response, just silence’ –
Martinus Hamaele was among those keeping a vigil outside the shattered hotel, desperate for news about his missing daughter, Meiren.
“We keep shouting ‘Meiren, Meiren, it’s me — your dad and your brother,” he said.
“But there’s no response, just silence.”
Authorities have set a tentative deadline of Friday to find anyone still trapped under rubble, at which point the chances of finding anyone alive will dwindle to almost zero.
Meanwhile Save the Children raised concerns that many kids had been separated from their families in the chaos and were “in shock and traumatised”. The group said it was working with the government to try to reunite youngsters with their relatives.
Indonesia sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, the world’s most tectonically active region, and its 260 million people are vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.