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Indonesia open to international aid after deadly earthquakes, tsunami

Country prioritises assistance in much-needed areas after learning from mistakes handling aid after 2004 Aceh tsunami

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 October, 2018, 8:55pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2018, 11:21pm

Indonesia on Monday opened up to international help with evacuation and aid distribution after a series of earthquakes and a tsunami hit the island region of Sulawesi, the country’s disaster agency (BPNB) said.

The confirmed death toll has reached 844 people, a number the BNPB said was likely to rise significantly as many victims remained trapped under rubble or mud, particularly in hard-to-reach areas.

Due to the magnitude of the disaster, President Joko Widodo has instructed Indonesia’s foreign ministry to start coordinating international aid from the likes of China, Australia, the United States and the European Union.

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“We have learned our lesson from the Aceh tsunami in 2004 that, regarding international help, we have to be selective and only accept aid that we actually need,” BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said at a news conference. “We need to select the countries based on their capacity to help us.”

During the Aceh tsunami, Indonesia accepted an unprecedented US$6 billion worth of donations from 117 countries, but analysts said the money ended up increasing socioeconomic inequality in the area due to a lack of experience and regulation relating to international aid – for instance, only some communities received high-quality housing.

For now, the country is prioritising tents, water treatment equipment, generator sets, field hospitals, medical staff, and aerial vehicles that can land on 2000-metre runways.

The BNPB estimates that Central Sulawesi suffered damage running into more than 10 trillion rupiah (US$670.56 million), more than that incurred from the recent Lombok quakes.

Rescuers are still facing obstacles reaching Donggala, the epicentre of the 7.4-magnitude quake that hit at dusk on Friday, citing damaged roads, landslides, and a lack of heavy equipment to speed up evacuation and search-and-rescue operations.

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“Survivors are taking shelter in open fields, those who stayed in the hills are already joining other survivors in the search of food and basic necessities,” Sutopo said. “Quake and tsunami survivors really need … shelter, blankets, ready-to-eat food supplies and health care.”

A search and rescue team had reached Donggala but were uncontactable as electricity and communications were still cut off in the region, Sutopo said.

The agency said there were 254 aftershocks in Central Sulawesi following Friday’s quake and tsunami. Of particular concern are two housing complexes in Palu, the region’s capital, which are located on the Palu-Koro fault system running underneath Sulawesi Island.

Nearly 2,500 houses in the Balaroa and Patobo complexes were buried under mud following the quake and the six-metre-high tsunami wave, complicating the rescue process, Sutopo said.

Hundreds more people were feared buried in landslides that engulfed villages in surrounding areas.

Adding to the chaos, the Indonesian government said as many as 1,200 inmates had escaped from three different detention facilities in the devastated region.

Ministry of Justice official Sri Puguh Utami said inmates had escaped from overcapacity facilities in Palu and Donggala.

“I’m sure they escaped because they feared they would be affected by the earthquake. This is for sure a matter of life and death for the prisoners,” she said.

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A mass burial was also undertaken on Monday in Palu, in a trench measuring 10 metres by 100 metres that could be enlarged if needed, said BNPB chief Willem Rampangilei.

“This [burial] must be done as soon as possible for health and religious reasons,” he said. Indonesia is majority Muslim, and religious custom calls for burials soon after death, typically within one day.

Local military spokesman Mohammad Thorir said the area near a public cemetery could hold 1,000 bodies. All of the victims, coming from local hospitals, have been photographed to help families locate where their relatives were buried.

Of the 114 foreigners who were in Palu and Donggala when the disasters hit, eight remain missing – one Belgian, one South Korean, and six French nationals – while the rest have been rescued or evacuated.

In Palu, there were 48,025 refugees taking shelter across the city, Sutopo said, adding that 90 people were still missing and 632 were heavily injured.

Those numbers are expected to rise as rescuers slowly reach the most affected areas such as Parigi Moutong and Sigi, where electricity has yet to be restored, hampering evacuation at night.

Aid is being distributed overland as well as by air and sea, but not all survivors have been reached and there are long queues involved for those who have.

Police were guarding overland aid distribution to Palu after footage spread on social media showing survivors in West Sulawesi looting logistics vehicles in Mamuju and Poso en route to the province’s capital, Sutopo said.

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People suffering from a lack of food and supplies were also becoming more desperate. Local television said around 3,000 residents had flocked to the Palu airport trying to get out. Footage showed some people screaming in anger because they were not able to board departing military aircraft. The airport has resumed only some commercial flights.

“We have not eaten for three days!” one woman yelled. “We just want to be safe!”

Indonesia’s geographic position on the “Ring of Fire”, an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin, makes it prone to disasters such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunami. BNPD data shows that the country is struck by 4500 to 6000 quakes each year.

Additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse