Indonesian rescuers carry a dead body from the debris in Petobo in Sulawesi on Sunday, following the Sept 28 earthquake and tsunami. Nearly 2000 bodies have been recovered from Palu but thousands are still missing. Photo: AFP / Mohd Rasfan
Indonesian rescuers carry a dead body from the debris in Petobo in Sulawesi on Sunday, following the Sept 28 earthquake and tsunami. Nearly 2000 bodies have been recovered from Palu but thousands are still missing. Photo: AFP / Mohd Rasfan

Many thousands of people were killed by the big quake and tsunami that struck Sulawesi Island in Indonesia 10 days ago, officials say.

The death toll was put at just under 2,000 on Monday but officials in Palu city said as many as 5,000 people may still be missing.

Most of the missing are believed to be in two of the hardest-hit areas in Palu – Petobo and Balaroa – were many homes sunk into the ground in a process known as liquefaction when the 7.5-magnitude quake struck. The town in northern Sulawesi was then hit by a powerful tsunami on September 28.

“Based on reports from the [village] heads of Balaroa and Petobo, there are about 5,000 people who have not been found,” agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told reporters on Sunday, AFP reported.

“Nevertheless, officials there are still trying to confirm this and are gathering data. It is not easy to obtain the exact number of those trapped by landslides, or liquefaction, or mud.”

Nugroho said the search for the unaccounted would continue until Thursday October 11, at which point they would be listed as missing, presumed dead.

The figure drastically increases estimates for those who may have perished during and after the disaster. Officials had initially predicted some 1,000 people were buried beneath the ruins of Palu.

Two areas may be declared mass graves

Petobo is a cluster of villages in Palu that was virtually wiped out by the powerful quake and wall of water that devastated Palu. Much of it was sucked whole into the ground as the vibrations from the quake turned soil to quicksand.

A vast number of bodies may remain entombed beneath the crumbled rooftops.

In Balaroa, a massive government housing complex was also subsumed by the quake and rescuers have struggled to extract bodies from the tangled mess in the aftermath of the disaster.

Hopes of finding anyone alive have faded, as the search for survivors morphs into a grim gathering and accounting of the dead.

“This is day ten. It would be a miracle to actually find someone still alive,” Muhammad Syaugi, the head of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency told AFP on Sunday.

The government has been considering declaring those communities flattened in Palu as mass graves, and leaving them untouched.

Muhlis, whose uncle was still missing in Balaroa, said the missing and dead should be honored respectfully. “There should be a monument here to make people aware, so our grandchildren will know this disaster happened in 2018,” said Muhlis, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

200,000 in desperate need

The grim news came as relief efforts were ramped up to reach 200,000 people in desperate of help after days of delays. Looters ransacked shops in the aftermath of the disaster more than a week ago, as food and water ran dry and convoys bringing relief were slow to arrive.

But the trickle of international aid to Palu and local efforts to help the survivors have accelerated in recent days. Planeloads of supplies were landing with increasing frequency in Palu, where daisy chains of troops unloaded supplies directly onto trucks or helicopters.

More than 82,000 military and civilian personnel, as well as volunteers, are on the ground while Indonesian army choppers are undertaking supply runs to remote areas blocked off by the disaster.

“They are in great need because the road is cut off and it’s accessible only by air”, Second Lieutenant Reinaldo Apri said after piloting a helicopter to rugged Lindu district, some 40 kilometers south of Palu.

Hercules planes carrying tonnes of donations from Australia and the United States reached Palu on Sunday morning, as did a plane chartered by Save the Children and another carrying a South African medical team.

Teams of Indonesian Red Cross workers set up warehouses and fanned out to distribute supplies across the region. But relief workers face a monumental task ahead.

The tens of thousands left homeless by the disaster are scattered across Palu and beyond, many squatting outside their ruined homes or bunkered down in makeshift camps and entirely dependent on handouts to survive.

“There is nowhere else to get food, nowhere is open,” said 18-year-old Sela Fauziah in Palu’s central market, where she queued with hundreds for essential food items being distributed by soldiers.

Things were more desperate in remoter areas, officials said.

The United Nations is seeking $50.5 million “for immediate relief” to help victims of the disaster.

with reporting by Agence France-Presse