Indonesian authorities on Tuesday raised the death toll to 1,234 in the 7.5-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Sulawesi island last week.
The twin disasters on Friday left the coastal city of Palu and the adjoining areas in ruins. Authorities said tens of thousands of people were growing increasingly desperate for food, fuel and water. According to Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency, hundreds of people may still be trapped under the rubble of buildings. Rescue teams were still not able to reach all the affected areas, the BBC reported
There were reports of officers firing warning shots and tear gas to ward off people ransacking shops in Palu, a coastal city ravaged by a 7.5-magnitude quake and the tsunami it spawned.
Almost 200,000 people are in need of urgent help, the United Nations says, among them thousands of children.
Police said Tuesday that they had previously tolerated desperate survivors taking food and water from closed shops, but had now arrested 35 people for stealing computers and cash.
“On the first and second day clearly no shops were open. People were hungry. There were people in dire need. That’s not a problem,” said deputy national police chief Ari Dono Sukmanto.
“If people steal, we catch and investigate.” Despite official assurances, desperation was evident on the streets of Palu, where survivors clambered through wreckage hunting for anything salvageable.
With the ground still shaking from aftershocks, people were still too afraid to go indoors. An earthquake measuring 6 on the Richter scale rocked Sumba island of Indonesia on Tuesday, but there were no reports of any damage.
Colonel Muhammad Thohir of the Indonesian Army said that authorities need to send aid via helicopter in areas like Donggala, one of the towns most affected by the tsunami, as well as other districts which were not accessible to the rescuers.
He said gasoline and water supplies were being transported to the Sulawesi island, but they were still insufficient for the people affected.
Indonesian officials said that priorities included sending food to those in need, conducting a mass burial of victims, and guaranteeing the security of the airport, which was expected to start receiving commercial flights on Wednesday.
So far, 153 victims have been buried in mass graves to prevent an outbreak of disease caused by decomposing bodies. According to a CCN report, more than 100 corpses were still lying in the yard outside the Undata Hospital in Palu.
The hospital’s director, Komang Hadi Sujendra, said the one facility alone had received over 200 bodies since the tsunami.
An estimated 2.4 million people were affected by the disaster, said the disaster management agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho. He said that 800 were badly injured and more than 61,000 people were displaced.
Among the dead are dozens of students whose lifeless bodies were pulled from their landslide-swamped church in Sulawesi.
“A total of 34 bodies were found by the team,” Indonesia Red Cross spokeswoman Aulia Arriani told AFP after the grim discovery, adding that 86 students had initially been reported missing from a Bible camp at the Jonooge Church Training Centre.
Arriani said rescuers faced an arduous trek to reach the mudslide and retrieve the victims.
“The most challenging problem is travelling in the mud as much as 1.5 hours by foot while carrying the bodies to an ambulance,” she said.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation but there are small pockets of religious minorities, including Christians, across the archipelago of 260 million people.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned Monday that there were 191,000 people in urgent need of help after the quake-tsunami, among them 46,000 children and 14,000 elderly — many in areas that aren’t the focus of government recovery efforts.
The dead — many yet uncounted, their bodies still trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings — are also a source of concern for authorities.
In Indonesia’s hot, equatorial climate, bodies quickly begin to rot and provide a breeding ground for deadly diseases.
At Poboya — in the hills above the devastated seaside city of Palu — volunteers have begun to fill a vast grave with the dead, with instructions to prepare for 1,300 victims to be laid to rest.
Residents affected by an earthquake and tsunami wait to be evacuated by military aircraft at Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport in Palu, Central Sulawesi
Trucks stacked with corpses wrapped in orange, yellow and black bags are bringing their load to the site, where the bodies are dragged into the grave as excavators pour soil on top.
There were glimmers of hope among the countless tragedies.
Two people have been plucked from the 80-room Hotel Roa-Roa, Indonesia’s search and rescue agency said, and there could still be more alive.
And for Azwan, who — like many Indonesians — goes by a single name, there was joy when he was reunited with his wife, Dewi, after 48 hours of fearing the worst as he searched hospitals and morgues.
The 38-year-old civil servant struggled to keep his emotions in check as he told how the couple had been reunited two days after Dewi had been swept away by the tsunami.
“I was so happy, so emotional — thank god I could see her again,” Azwan told AFP.
But for some, the search yields only sorrow as they trudge around open-air morgues, where the dead lay in the baking sun — waiting to be claimed, waiting to be named.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was working to reunite families who had become separated during the disaster and was providing “forensic services” to those carrying out the grim task of identifying victims.