Earthquake survivors scuffle to get live chickens being distributed from a police truck outside a makeshift camp in Palu.  Photo: AFP / Jewel Samad
Earthquake survivors scuffle to get live chickens being distributed from a police truck outside a makeshift camp in Palu. Photo: AFP / Jewel Samad

Indonesia’s government and international relief agencies are still struggling to cope with the devastation wrought by the earthquake and tsunami which hit the central island of Sulawesi on Friday.

At least 1,347 people have died in the disaster, according to the disaster response agency, after a 7.5-magnitude quake struck in the center of the Indonesian archipelago, setting off a tsunami which engulfed the coastal city of Palu.

There have been reports of looting in the ravaged city of Palu as local residents have grown increasingly desperate for food, fuel and water. Police have allegedly arrested more than 40 people who targeted ATMs, warehouses and supermarkets, according to Kompas media outlet.

Meanwhile humanitarian relief convoys entering the city are now being escorted by soldiers and police.

There are also fears that survivors may still be trapped under the rubble of shattered buildings.

Almost 200,000 people are in need of urgent help, the United Nations says, among them tens of thousands of children.

“We are currently listing all the possible [overseas] assistance we need, including airplanes for transporting relief and aid packages, both from Jakarta and nearby cities, as well as refugee tents, water treatment solutions and heavy equipment for digging out and retrieving victims from collapsed buildings,” Arrmanatha Nasir, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told a media briefing in Jakarta on Tuesday.

The extent of the death and destruction wrought by the earthquake and tsunami on Sulawesi is still not fully clear because authorities and rescue workers have struggled to reach affected areas that were inaccessible due to broken infrastructure.

On Tuesday, authorities put the death toll at 844, but that figure was based largely on destruction in Palu. The toll is expected to rise dramatically as rescuers reach outlying areas of the islands.

Officials have said they fear whole communities may have been swept away by a tsunami which dramatic video footage taken by residents showed crashing into coastal areas of Palu. The killer wave devastated infrastructure, leaving affected areas without electricity and fuel.

As of Tuesday, nearly 60,000 people had been displaced and were in need of emergency help, while thousands have been streaming out of stricken areas, Reuters reported.

Also on Tuesday, some of the dead were taken to a mass grave for burial. “Grieve for the people of Central Sulawesi, we all grieve together,” President Joko Widodo said on Twitter late on Sunday. Vice President Jusuf Kalla had said earlier that the death toll could rise into the “thousands.”

Rescuers on Tuesday reached Donggala, a region of 300,000 people north of Palu and close to the epicenter of the quake, and two other districts, which have been cut off from communications since Friday, agencies reported. The districts have a combined population of 1.4 million, the reports said.

Rescue personnel carry the body of an earthquake victim to the compounds of a police hospital in Palu, Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi on September 30, 2018. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

“The situation in the affected [Donggala] areas is nightmarish,” Jan Gelfand, head of an International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies office in Jakarta, said in a statement.

“The city of Palu has been devastated and first reports out of Donggala indicate that it has also been hit extremely hard.”

While rescuers endeavor to locate and provide assistance to survivors, Widodo’s government is scrambling to show a competent and prompt response amid rising questions about its failure to warn residents of the incoming tsunami.

News agencies reported that dozens of people were trapped in the rubble of several hotels and a mall in Palu. On Monday, Widodo told reporters rescuing those trapped people was a priority.

“The evacuation is not finished yet, there are many places where the evacuation couldn’t be done because of the absence of heavy equipment, but last night equipment started to arrive,” Widodo said to reporters. He said the government was sending “as much food supplies as possible” by military transport aircraft from the national capital.

On Tuesday, a navy vessel capable of taking 1,000 people at a time was due to be deployed to help with the evacuation. State-owned oil and gas company Pertamina started distributing diesel fuel to crucial facilities like hospitals and electricity company PLN, as well as for search and rescue operations in Palu and Donggala, the Jakarta Post reported.

But hard questions are rising in particular over why the meteorological and geophysics agency, known as BMKG, issued a tsunami warning soon after the quake hit, but lifted it 34 minutes later. Officials have claimed that the tsunami warning was still in place when the killer wave hit coastal areas.

Videos of the wave as it hit Palu taken by residents in high rise buildings showed people on the beach and beachside roads apparently unaware as the massive water surge approached.

Those images harked to the December 26, 2004 tsunami caused by an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra that killed 120,000 people in Indonesia, largely in the northern Aceh province. The lack of early warning systems contributed to the high death toll in that disaster.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, second from right, surveys damage on the scene in Palu on Sulawesi island after the earthquake and tsunami. Photo: AFP/ Indonesian Presidential Palace

Other critical questions surround why warning systems established in the wake of that disaster appear to have failed to warn citizens on Friday. NDMA’s Nugroho told reporters that none of the tsunami buoys used to detect the waves had been operational since 2012 due to a lack of funding.

Widodo’s government is bidding to appear more responsive in the disaster’s aftermath, so far with mixed results. On Sunday, the president visited a housing complex smashed by the quake while calling on survivors for “patience” as assistance started to trickle into affected areas that were still being rattled by aftershocks.

“I know there are many problems that need to be solved in a short time, including communications,” he said. He assured residents that the ruins would be rebuilt, according to reports.

The Jakarta Post said in a commentary that while disaster-related authorities say public awareness campaigns on natural disasters have continued for years, including in Central Sulawesi, it was evident in how easily buildings collapsed that leaders and city planners had not implemented earthquake-resistant building codes and standards.

Two Indonesian men (front) search for family members at their damaged house in the Balaroa village in Palu, Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi on October 1, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Adek Berry

At the same time, there are risks that the disaster’s aftermath could tilt towards anomie amid rising reports, including videos posted to social media, of widespread looting.

Television images showed scores of residents shouting “we’re hungry, we need food” as soldiers distributed rations from a truck in one neighborhood, while footage from elsewhere showed people making off with clothes and other items from a wrecked mall, Reuters reported.

Internal Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo said he had ordered authorities to help people get food and drink and businesses that suffered from looting would be compensated. The apparent official condoning of looting is raising hackles with local retailers who claim that at least 40 damaged outlets have been affected.

“We are concerned about the government’s arrogance in allowing people to loot goods from retail outlets in Palu and Donggala, without [first] coordinating with their owners or management, or with the association,” said Roy Nicholas Mandey, chairman of the Indonesian Retailers Association, according to local reports.

Local residents had also stolen fuel from the trucks of state-owned oil and gas giant Pertamina, according to reports. Tjahjo has since denied he made any statement condoning looting as a means to distribute goods to affected populations.

On Monday, a witness quoted by Reuters said queues at petrol stations on the approaches to Palu stretched for kilometers. Convoys carrying food, water and fuel awaited police escorts to prevent pilfering before heading towards the city while a stream of residents headed out.

One aid worker quoted anonymously by Reuters spoke of growing lawlessness and threats of violence among survivors seeking fuel. The state energy company, Pertamina, said it was airlifting in 4,000 liters of fuel, while Indonesia’s logistics agency said it would send hundreds of tons of rice.

On Monday, Widodo authorized the country to accept international assistance to deal with the aftermath, according to a tweet by Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating Board. It was not immediately clear what types of assistance the government will allow. Widodo’s government shunned outside assistance after an earthquake devastated the eastern island of Lombok earlier this year.

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, meanwhile, said the government had allocated 560 billion rupiah (US$37.58 million) for disaster recovery, media reported. But Widodo’s government will likely need to reach much deeper into its coffers to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe that increasingly risks being exacerbated by lawless chaos.

This report draws on news agency reporting

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