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Grim reality dawns as Sulawesi counts cost of tsunami tragedy

Amid fears that thousands may have died, Indonesia is left to mourn again as the nation reflects on the challenges faced and failings experienced in natural disasters

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 October, 2018, 8:45pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2018, 10:28pm

The horrific death toll and scale of devastation from the earthquake and tsunami that struck the central Indonesian island of Sulawesi is becoming apparent. Thousands of people may have perished in the six-metre wave that smashed ashore and crushed buildings as it broke. The nation was mourning the deaths of more than 550 in a quake that hit the island of Lombok just over a month ago; for it to be grieving again so soon is indeed tragic. Indonesians, Filipinos, Sri Lankans and others whose countries border the Indian Ocean or are within the “ring of fire”, the curving chain of tectonic plate boundaries that hug the Pacific basin, are once more asking searching questions about preparedness, warning systems and how when nature’s fury randomly hits, lives can be best protected.

For much of Indonesia, and Sulawesi in particular, the answer for now is that only so much can be done. The monster waves from the 7.5-magnitude quake that occurred at dusk last Friday were unexpected, even by scientists. Dramatic videos show a roller eerily growing in the bay off the city of Palu and then crashing ashore, smashing beach structures and sending people fleeing. Although the island is criss-crossed by at least two major fault lines and determined by researchers to be the most prone part of the nation to tsunamis, the precise circumstances that led to one so large remain a matter of conjecture.

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Authorities have admitted a failing with the tsunami warning system, blaming the premature ending of an alert, as initial waves of 1.5 metres were coming ashore, on a lack of sensors. But the heavy toll also reflects insufficient awareness and preparedness, despite Indonesia experiencing 90 per cent of the world’s quakes and bearing the brunt of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, with 170,000 of the almost 228,000 people killed in 14 countries being Indonesians. The catastrophe, one of the worst natural disasters ever recorded, led to the putting in place of a network of sea-floor sensors and surface buoys across the region, public awareness campaigns on natural disasters and improved building codes. Buildings too close to the water that collapsed as giant waves hit Palu and elsewhere in central Sulawesi plainly show that lessons have still not been learned.

A particular problem is that nature is unpredictable; quakes still cannot be accurately forecast. That makes Indonesia, a string of islands with fault lines on and offshore, particularly vulnerable. Tsunami warning systems have limited value when they give people just minutes to head to safety and it is especially so in a country rife with poverty and meagre infrastructure where tens of millions live on the coast. The Sulawesi disaster highlights both the challenges faced and the failings experienced.