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Phones on, shops open in Indonesian quake city, but fate of thousands unknown

By Thursday, the official death toll stood at 1,424, but it is widely expected to rise as most of the dead accounted for have been from Palu.

FILE: Residents sift through debris along a coastal area in Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on 2 October 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on 28 September 2018. Picture: AFP.

PALU - Some services began returning to normal in Indonesia’s quake and tsunami-stricken city of Palu on Thursday, but the fate of many thousands of people in outlying districts remained unknown nearly a week after the disaster struck.

The small city of 370,000 people has been the focus of the aid effort launched after last Friday’s 7.5 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on the west coast of Sulawesi island.

International help for survivors has gathered pace, but communities in more remote areas have been cut off by broken roads, landslides and crippled communications, leaving people increasingly desperate for basic needs as aid has only just begun to trickle through.

By Thursday, the official death toll stood at 1,424, but it is widely expected to rise as most of the dead accounted for have been from Palu.

The city, 1,500km north-east of Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, teetered close to chaos this week, with outbreaks of looting, but a recovery was evident as some shops and banks reopened and a major mobile phone network was back in operation.

“Power is partly on, communications are on, water and food distribution are going on and will continue,” the national disaster mitigation agency spokesperson, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, told a briefing.

Orderly queues formed at petrol stations after the arrival of fuel shipments.

State port operator Pelindo IV said Palu’s port, which was damaged by the quake and tsunami, was open, though a Reuters reporter in the city said she had not seen any shipping activity.

While a tally of the confirmed dead has been done in Palu, figures for remote areas are trickling in or remain unknown. Altogether, the worst affected areas include some 1.4 million people.

Rescue workers are pushing into outlying districts, where residents have said they have been scavenging for coconuts, bananas and cassava.

Villagers rushed a Red Cross helicopter that landed near the town of Donggala, north-west of Palu, to distribute bread and other food, a Reuters photographer said.

Nugroho said the main roads to the south, west and east of Palu had been opened but there has been scant information about conditions on the road to the north, along with the coast towards the epicentre of the quake, 78km from Palu.

“There’s no data,” said Abdul Haris of the national search and rescue agency, when asked about the string of small settlements that line the road, which passes some sandy beaches that attract a trickle of tourists.

“Places have been damaged by the tsunami along the coast,” Nugroho said, but he had no details.

‘DIFFICULT TIME’

International aid is beginning to arrive after the government overcame a traditional reluctance to accept help from abroad, including supplies from Britain and Australia due on Thursday.

The United Nations announced an allocation of $15 million on Wednesday while the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it was appealing for 22 million Swiss francs ($22 million).

The United States had provided initial funding and disaster experts and was working to determine what other help could be given, the State Department said.

Indonesian Central Bank Governor Perry Warjiyo played down the impact on Southeast Asia’s biggest economy of the disaster in Sulawesi, and of earlier deadly quakes on the tourist island of Lombok.

“This is really a challenging and difficult time for Indonesia and for all of us, but we are united, and we stand strong,” he told a briefing of the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club late on Wednesday.

Straddling the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia has long been vulnerable to quakes and tsunamis.

In 2004, a quake off Sumatra island triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

But safety measures implemented after that disaster, including tsunami warning systems, failed on Friday.

A network of tsunami-detecting buoys has been out of action since 2012. President Joko Widodo has ordered it be repaired and maintained.