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Fears for thousands of people in Sulawesi quake, tsunami rescue

Sydney Morning Herald - September 30, 2018

James Massola, Jewel Topsfield, Amilia Rosa & Karuni Rompies, Makassar, Indonesia Grave fears are held for thousands of people living in the epicentre of a huge earthquake and tsunami that struck the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, as the official toll from the disaster rose to more than 800.

Overnight on Saturday, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla warned it could reach well into the thousands.

The Australian government said it was not aware of any Australians affected by the earthquake but was continuing to make inquiries with local authorities.

Corpses lined the coastal city of Palu as the National Disaster Management Agency continued the grim process of identifying those who perished in the 7.5 magnitude earthquake and 1.5 metre tsunami on Friday.

However the Indonesian government and aid groups fear the number of casualties could be even higher in Donggala, about 30 kilometres from Palu, which was still without electricity on Sunday. Authorities had little information about conditions on the ground for the first two days after the quake and tsunami hit.

About 2.4 million people live on the Palu-Koro fault line. Palu is home to about 330,000 people and Donggala about 270,000 people.

National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho is due to provide a comprehensive update on the situation on the ground late on Sunday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was "terribly saddened" to hear of the tragic events and Australia "stands ready to assist". He had called Indonesian President Joko Widodo overnight to express his sympathies and pledge support: "If he needs our help, he'll have it."

As President Jokowi flew to Palu, evacuations continued of victims buried under the rubble of what was once the Roa-Roa Hotel in Palu, the capital city of Central Sulawesi.

Seven of 30 paragliders, who were staying at the hotel while competing at an event in Palu, were among the missing. Voices could be heard screaming from the ruins of the eight-storey building.

Buildings and trees were swept away near Palu due to liquefaction, a process where the sheer amount of liquid in the soil turned it into a watery mud. Prison inmates fled when a jail partially collapsed in Palu, with half of its 560 convicts going missing.

"We had limited number of guards and they were panic trying to save themselves because some walls collapsed. It was an extraordinary incident," the prison head, Ady Yan Ricoh said.

Looters ransacked a badly damaged mall in Palu. "It is believed there are still people trapped in the mall," said a reporter from MetroTV. "I can smell the very strong odour of decaying bodies."

One man, Ferry, said he was looking for his wife. "I wanted to go to the hospital to look for her," he told MetroTV. "But my neighbour said I should first check the mall. So I went here and found her bag. I remember she wore jeans and carried this black bag."

Palu airport reopened to commercial flights on Sunday, although humanitarian and emergency flights were prioritised.

In Makassar, the largest city on Sulawesi, thousands of people scrambled to find flights that would take them to the disaster zone. The Indonesian military provided about 100 seats per flight on their Hercules aircraft for those seeking to go home, but emergency supplies were given priority.

Nikita waited at the airport from Saturday afternoon, desperate to get home to her husband and two-year-old son. She had only had brief contact with some of her family, and her aunt and uncle were thought to have been swept away in the tsunami.

"Can you please help me, can't you ask someone to find my son? Please, please, can you ask anyone, his name is Zidan Anugrah Pratama, he's two," she said, showing a photo of her son and husband. "None of my family members saw them. I don't know what has happened to them."

Former AusAid Deputy Director General Peter McCawley said Australia's offer of financial assistance should be immediate and unconditional.

"Aid donors often attach onerous conditions to the provision of aid. But the inclusion of conditionality in an offer of emergency aid such as this would be inappropriate," he said in the Lowy Institute. "Second, Australian support should be provided in close cooperation with key Indonesian agencies."

This latest tragedy comes about seven weeks after the Indonesian islands of Lombok and Bali were devastated by a series of earthquakes that killed at least 623 people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings.

Indonesia sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is regularly hit by earthquakes. In 2004, an earthquake off the northern Indonesian island of Sumatra triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean, killing 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Red Cross Australia spokesman Ian Wolverton said the agency had been on the ground from the outset and while the full extent of the destruction was unknown but "it is clear the humanitarian impact is very high".

The agency was ready to send ambulance crews, first aid responders, assessment teams and logisticians, he added.

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/fears-for-thousands-of-people-in-sulawesi-quake-tsunami-rescue-20180930-p506y6.html.

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