Indonesian quake survivors say scavenging in ‘zombie town’

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Local residents affected by the earthquake and tsunami carry aid provided during the visit of Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Donggala, north of Palu in Central Sulawesi. Reuters

PALU (Reuters) – Hungry survivors of an earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia said yesterday 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 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.

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.

In a 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,” Mr said Derajat whose house was swept away by the tsunami leaving a jumble of furniture, collapsed tin roofs and wooden beams.

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.

Mr 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 yesterday, 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 Mr 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 yesterday morning, carrying tons of aid, some bedecked in the red and white national colours and stamped with the presidential office seal.

The quake brought down hotels, shopping malls and thousands of houses in Palu, while tsunami waves as high as six meters scoured its beachfront shortly afterwards.

About 1,700 houses in one neighbourhood were swallowed up by ground liquefaction, which happens when soil shaken by an earthquake behaves like a liquid, and hundreds of people are believed to have perished, the disaster agency said.

Adding to Sulawesi’s woes, the Soputan volcano in the north of the island, about 600 km northeast of Palu, erupted yesterday but there were no reports of any casualties or damage.

The government has said it would accept offers of international aid, after shunning outside help this year when two major earthquakes struck Lombok island, south of Sulawesi.

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