Authorities in Indonesia set a deadline of Friday to find anyone still trapped alive under rubble after an earthquake and tsunami hit the central province of Sulawesi, as the death toll passed 1,400 on Wednesday.
Officials said that by Friday, one week after the devastating double disaster, the chances of finding survivors would dwindle to almost zero.
To compound an already disastrous situation, the eruption of Mount Soputan in North Sulawesi may also hamper relief and evacuation efforts, with authorities warning planes about volcanic ash in the air.
Mount Soputan spewed ash 6,000 meters into the sky on Wednesday morning. Planes were warned of ash clouds because volcanic ash is hazardous for plane engines.
The death toll passed 1,400 on Wednesday, with the United Nations warning of “vast” unmet needs. Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia’s national disaster agency, told the media on Wednesday the number of dead had risen to 1,407 across four areas around the hard-hit seaside city of Palu. He added that only 519 bodies had been buried.
Rescue workers were focusing their efforts on six key sites around the city – the Hotel Roa-Roa where up to 60 people were thought to be buried under ruble, a shopping mall, a restaurant and the Balaroa area where the force of the 7.5-magnitude quake turned the earth to mush.
According to the UN’s humanitarian office, almost 200,000 people were in urgent need of help, including tens of thousands of children. An estimated 66,000 homes had been destroyed or damaged.
Despite the Indonesian government urging foreign rescue teams to “stand down,” saying the crisis was in hand, residents in hard-hit, remote villages like Wani in Donggala province say little help had arrived and hope was fading.
In Geneva, the United Nations expressed frustration at the slow pace of the response. “There are still large areas of what might be the worst-affected areas that haven’t been properly reached, but the teams are pushing, they are doing what they can,” Jens Laerke, from the UN’s humanitarian office, told reporters late on Tuesday.
The World Health Organization estimated that across Donggala, about 310,000 people had been affected by the disaster.
Survivors were battling thirst and hunger, with food and clean water in short supply, and local hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of injured.
“Military personnel have been deployed to fuel depots, ATMs, markets and the airport to ensure that economic activities are running. It will give the sense of security to the people so hopefully there will be no more looting,” said Chief Air Marshall Hadi Tjahyanto, adding that all supply convoys into the city will be escorted by armed soldiers.
Signs of desperation were growing, with police forced to fire warning shots and tear gas on Tuesday to ward off people ransacking shops.
Six Indonesian social affairs ministry trucks laden with supplies were reportedly looted on their way to Palu. In the main route north out of the city, an AFP journalist saw youths blocking the road and asking for “donations” to clear the way.
Officials on the ground said that while the government was inviting offers of help, there was still no “mechanism for this to be implemented.”
Landing slots at Palu airport had been snapped up by the Indonesian military, although it was expected to be open to commercial flights from 7:59am on Thursday. Palu’s port, a key transit point for aid, had been damaged.
President Joko Widodo, who faces reelection next year, insisted the military and police were in full control. “There is no such thing as looting,” he said on a visit to Palu.
As survivors picked through the shattered remains of their neighborhoods, the death toll continued to rise.
The Indonesia-based ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance said more body bags were “urgently” needed as fears grew that decomposing corpses would provide a breeding ground for deadly diseases.
Rescue efforts were hampered by a lack of heavy machinery, severed transport links and the scale of the damage.
International aid offers had picked up since Jakarta’s belated request for help, with the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund announcing late Tuesday it was releasing $15 million in aid.
On Wednesday, Australia said it was sending a medical team to the disaster zone and providing an additional $5 million in aid.
With power returning to parts of Palu late Tuesday and phone networks back up and running, there were some signs of things getting back to normal. But for most, daily life had changed beyond all recognition.
Palu residents crowded around daisy-chained power strips at the few buildings with electricity, or queued for water, cash or petrol being brought in via armed police convoy. Queues to get a few liters of petrol lasted more than 24 hours in some places.
Sanitation was also a growing problem. “People everywhere want to go to the toilet, but there’s no toilet. So we do it along the road at night,” said 50-year-old Armawati Yarmin.
Indonesia sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” the world’s most tectonically active region, and its 260 million people are vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.
With AFP and agencies