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Death toll up to 1,400 as Indonesia quake survivors scavenge for food

  • 3 Oct 2018

Adding to Sulawesi's woes, the Soputan volcano in the north of the island erupted early on Wednesday but there were no reports of any casualties or damage.

Residents affected by earthquake and tsunami carry aid provided during the visit of Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Donggala, north of Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia on October 3, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. ( Reuters )

Hungry survivors of an earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia said on Wednesday they were scavenging for food in farms as President Joko Widodo made a second visit to the area to ramp up aid efforts five days after disaster struck.

The official death toll from the 7.5 magnitude quake that hit the west coast of Sulawesi island last Friday rose to 1,407, many killed by tsunami waves it triggered.

But officials fear the toll could soar, as most of the confirmed dead have come from Palu, a small city 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of Jakarta, and losses in remote areas remain unknown, as communications are down, and bridges and roads have been destroyed or blocked by landslides.

TRT World’s Bruce Harrison has this report.

National disaster mitigation agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said most of the aid effort had been concentrated in Palu, where electricity supply has yet to be restored.

But rescue workers have begun to reach more remote areas in a disaster zone that encompasses 1.4 million people.

Johnny Lim, a restaurant owner reached by telephone in Donggala town, said he was surviving on coconuts.

"It's a zombie town. Everything's destroyed. Nothing’s left," Lim said over a crackling line.

"We're on our last legs. There's no food, no water."

In another part of Donggala district, which has a population of 300,000 people, Ahmad Derajat, said survivors were scavenging for food in fields and orchards.

"What we're relying on right now is food from farms and sharing whatever we find like sweet potatoes or bananas," said Derajat whose house was swept away by the tsunami leaving a jumble of furniture, collapsed tin roofs and wooden beams.

"Why aren't they dropping aid by helicopter?" he asked.

Aid worker Lian Gogali described a perilous situation in Donggala, which includes a string of cut-off, small towns along a coast road north of Palu close to the quake's epicentre.

"Everyone is desperate for food and water. There's no food, water, or gasoline. The government is missing," Gogali said, adding that her aid group had only been able to send in a trickle of rations by motorbike.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo oversees the evacuation process near the ruins of Roa-Roa Hotel after an earthquake in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia on October 3, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.(Reuters)

President not listening

Underlining a growing sense of urgency, President Widodo made his second visit to the disaster zone, putting on an orange hard hat to talk to rescue workers at a collapsed hotel in Palu.

"What I've observed after returning now is heavy equipment has arrived, logistics have started to arrive although it's not at maximum yet, fuel has partly arrived,” Widodo told reporters.

Widodo, who will seek re-election next year, called on Tuesday for reinforcements in the search for victims, saying everyone had to be found. He repeated that on Wednesday, after inspecting what he called an "evacuation" effort at the Hotel Roa Roa, where he said some 30 people lay buried in the ruins.

Yahdi Basma, a leader from a village south of Palu hoping to get his family on a cargo plane out, said Widodo had no idea of the extent of the suffering.

"The president is not hearing about the remote areas, only about the tsunami and about Palu," he said.

"There are hundreds of people still buried under the mud in my village ... There is no aid whatsoever which is why we're leaving."

At least seven cargo planes arrived at Palu airport earlier on Wednesday carrying tonnes of aid, some bedecked in the red and white national colours and stamped with the presidential office seal declaring: "Assistance from the President of Republic of Indonesia”.

Volcano

A volcano erupted on Wednesday morning on the same central Indonesian island where an earlier earthquake and tsunami killed at least 1,400 people.

Authorities have warned planes about volcanic ash in the air after Mount Soputan in North Sulawesi province spewed ash 6,000 metres (19,700 feet) into the sky on Wednesday morning. No evacuations were immediately ordered.

A government volcanologist said it's possible the eruption was accelerated by the 7.5 magnitude earthquake in Central Sulawesi on Friday.

"It could be that this earthquake triggered the eruption, but the direct correlation has yet to be seen as there had been an increase in the Mount Soputan activity," Kasbani, the head of Indonesia's Vulcanology and Geology Disaster Mitigation agency, told online news portal Tempo.

Kasbani, who uses one name, said volcanic activity had been increasing at Soputan since August and began surging on Monday.

A villager holds a child as Mount Soputan volcano spews volcanic ash at Kota Menara village in South Minahasa, North Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 3, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.(Reuters)

Nazli Ismail, a geophysicist at University of Syiah Kuala, Banda Aceh on Sumatra island, stressed there was no concrete evidence to show they are linked.

"People talk about the butterfly effect. The concept is that when a butterfly flaps its wings, it can cause a catastrophe," he said. "So it is possible for the earthquake to trigger the volcano eruption, but it's not conclusive. This needs to be further investigated."

Nazri said the Soputan volcano eruption isn't surprising as Indonesia sits on the seismically active Pacific "Ring of Fire," and Soputan is one of the most active volcanoes on the island.

Soputan's eruption status was raised from an alert to standby 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) from the summit and up to 6.5 kilometers to the west-southwest. Standby status means the public should avoid the area nearest the volcano and have masks available in the event of ashfall.

Villagers walk as Mount Soputan volcano spews volcanic ash at Kota Menara village in South Minahasa, North Sulawesi, Indonesia, on October 3, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.(Reuters)

Planes were warned of the ash clouds because volcanic ash is hazardous for their engines.

The earthquake in Central Sulawesi set off a tsunami and has devastated several communities.

Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 250 million people and government seismologists monitor more than 120 active volcanoes.

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