The death toll from a powerful earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia leapt to 832 Sunday, as stunned people on the stricken island of Sulawesi struggled to find food and water and looting spread.
The new toll announced by the national disaster agency was almost double the previous figure. Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said the final number of dead could be in the “thousands” as many regions have still not been reached.
“It feels very tense,” said 35-year-old mother Risa Kusuma, comforting her feverish baby boy at an evacuation centre in the gutted coastal city of Palu. “Every minute an ambulance brings in bodies. Clean water is scarce. The minimarkets are looted everywhere.”
Indonesia’s Metro TV broadcast on Sunday footage from a coastal community in Donggala, close to the epicentre of the quake, where some waterfront homes appeared crushed but a resident said most people fled to higher ground after the quake struck.
“When it shook really hard, we all ran up into the hills,” a man identified as Iswan told Metro TV.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo arrived in the region Sunday afternoon to see the devastation for himself.
In Palu city on Sunday aid was trickling in, the Indonesian military had been deployed and search-and-rescue workers were doggedly combing the rubble for survivors — looking for as many as 150 people at one upscale hotel alone.
“We managed to pull out a woman alive from the Hotel Roa-Roa last night,” Muhammad Syaugi, head of the national search and rescue agency, told AFP. “We even heard people calling for help there yesterday.”
“What we now desperately need is heavy machinery to clear the rubble. I have my staff on the ground, but it’s impossible just to rely on their strength alone to clear this.”
There were also concerns over the whereabouts of hundreds of people who had been preparing for a beach festival when the 7.5-magnitude quake struck Friday, sparking a tsunami that ripped apart the city’s coastline.
A Facebook page was created by worried relatives who posted pictures of still-missing family members in the hopes of finding them alive.
The disaster agency said it believed about 61 foreigners were in Palu when the quake struck, with most accounted for and safe.
Three French nationals and a South Korean, who may have been staying at a flattened hotel, had not yet been accounted for, it added.
Amid the levelled trees, overturned cars, concertinaed homes and flotsam tossed up to 50 metres inland, survivors and rescuers struggled to come to grips with the scale of the disaster.
On Saturday evening, residents fashioned makeshift bamboo shelters or slept out on dusty playing fields, fearing powerful aftershocks would topple damaged homes and bring yet more carnage.
C-130 military transport aircraft with relief supplies managed to land at the main airport in Palu, which re-opened to humanitarian flights and limited commercial flights, but only to pilots able to land by sight alone.
Satellite imagery provided by regional relief teams showed the severe damage at some of the area’s major sea ports, with large ships tossed on land, quays and bridges trashed and shipping containers thrown around.
Hospitals were overwhelmed by the influx of those injured, with many people being treated in the open air. There were widespread power blackouts.
“We all panicked and ran out of the house” when the quake hit, said Anser Bachmid, a 39-year-old Palu resident. “People here need aid — food, drink, clean water.”