This story is developing.
It’s been a week, and Sulawesi has literally been rocked by 451 aftershocks since a devastating 7.5 magnitude earthquake caused a tsunami and claimed the lives of over 1,700 people. Officials said that more than 5,000 people could still be missing, after rivers of soil swept away entire neighbourhoods, with the towns of Baleroa and Petobo particularly hard hit.
A further 62,000 people have been displaced by the disaster, the spokesperson of Indonesia’s Disaster Management Agency, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, said. He also confirmed that the death toll from the quake has now reached 1,763, with 265 people missing in central Sulawesi’s largest city, Palu.
How did entire villages get swept away? Soil liquefaction is to blame – a process where the soil becomes saturated with water, causing it to erupt into torrents that can then topple buildings and cause large-scale destruction. As if Indonesia didn’t have enough natural disasters to contend with already.
In the days following the quake, more than 1,000 houses in the towns were buried under rivers of soil. In the city of Palu, home to about 350,000 people, footage showed people running to find solid ground as structures were destroyed by waves of undulating earth.
“Liquefaction occurs when loose sandy soils with shallow groundwater are subjected to sudden loading such as shaking from an earthquake,” explained Jonathan Stewart, a professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“During the earthquake, water pressure is generated in the soil, which causes a dramatic loss of strength,” added Stewart. “The strength loss can be so great that the soil behaves almost like a liquid.” The process is thought to have played a key role in other earthquakes, such as those in Tohoku in Japan and Christchurch, New Zealand, both in 2011.
After 48 hours, the death toll from the Sulawesi earthquake has surpassed 800, with numbers still set to rise.
“The casualties will keep increasing,” said national disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, whose agency announced 832 deaths. “Today we will start the mass burial of victims, to avoid the spread of disease.”
Bleakly, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said the final death toll in the north of Sulawesi island could be in the “thousands” since many regions have still not been reached.
Save The Children program director Tom Howells said access was a “huge issue” hampering relief efforts.
“Aid agencies and local authorities are struggling to reach several communities around Donggala, where we are expecting there to be major damage and potential large-scale loss of life,” Howells said.
Roads leading to and from Donggala were significantly damaged in the earthquake.
“It feels very tense,” said 35-year-old mother Risa Kusuma, comforting her feverish baby boy at an evacuation centre in the gutted coastal city of Palu. “Every minute an ambulance brings in bodies. Clean water is scarce. The mini-markets are looted everywhere.”
Men and women made off with plastic bin bags and baskets full of biscuits, crisps, nappies, gas canisters, tissue paper and more.
“There has been no aid, we need to eat. We don’t have any other choice, we must get food,” shouted one man.
“We are in a crisis,” cried another.
“This situation forced us to do this. We need everything, food, water,” said a group of teenagers. “We took anything we could take. We can’t even cook. So that’s why we looted.”
The number of looters vastly outnumbered the scant number of policemen who looked on from the police station across the road –unable or unwilling to uphold law and order that has quickly melted away.
Amid the levelled trees, overturned cars, concertinaed homes and flotsam tossed up to 50 metres inland, survivors and rescuers struggled to come to grips with the scale of the disaster.
On Saturday evening residents fashioned makeshift bamboo shelters or slept out on dusty playing fields, fearing powerful aftershocks would topple damaged homes and bring yet more carnage.
Ill-equipped rescuers are still struggling to reach victims and “Communication is limited, heavy machinery is limited… it’s not enough for the numbers of buildings that collapsed,” Nugroho said.
Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo has since arrived in the region and the military have been also been deployed to contribute to search and rescue efforts.
Palu’s airport has since reopened to humanitarian aircraft and limited commercial aircrafts. The condition? Pilots must be able to land by sight alone.
Hospitals were overwhelmed by the influx of injured, with many people being treated in the open air. There were widespread power blackouts.
“People here need aid – food, drink, clean water,” said Anser Bachmid, a 39-year-old Palu resident.
Nearly 400 people were killed when a powerful quake sent a tsunami barrelling into the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, officials said Saturday, as hospitals struggled to cope with hundreds of injured and rescuers scrambled to reach the stricken region.
The national disaster agency put the official death toll so far at 384, all of them in the tsunami-struck city of Palu, but warned the toll was likely to rise.
Some 540 people were badly injured, it added.
In the city, home to around 350,000 people, partially covered bodies lay on the ground near the shore, the day after tsunami waves 1.5m (five feet) came ashore.
There were also concerns over the whereabouts of hundreds of people preparing for a beach festival that had been due to start Friday evening, the disaster agency said.
Hospitals were overwhelmed by the influx of injured, with many people being treated in the open air, while other survivors helped to retrieve the remains of those who died.
One man was seen carrying the muddy corpse of a small child.
The tsunami was triggered by a strong quake that brought down buildings and sent locals fleeing for higher ground as a churning wall of water crashed into Palu, where there were widespread power blackouts.
‘I just ran’
Dramatic video footage captured from the top floor of a parking ramp in Palu, nearly 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the quake’s epicentre, showed waves bring down several buildings and inundate a large mosque.
“I just ran when I saw the waves hitting homes on the coastline,” said Palu resident Rusidanto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
The shallow 7.5 magnitude tremor was more powerful than a series of quakes that killed hundreds on the Indonesian island of Lombok in July and August.
Indonesian president Joko Widodo said the military was being called in to the disaster-struck region to help search-and-rescue teams get to victims and find bodies.
Earlier, the head of the country’s search and rescue agency Muhammad Syaugi told AFP that local staff had found “many” dead bodies.
“We’re particularly concerned about the impact of the earthquake on children, who are more vulnerable to being swept away in tsunamis,” said Tom Howells, of Save the Children.
People living hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre reported feeling the massive shake, which came hours after a smaller jolt killed at least one person in the same part of the country.
Palu and the surrounding region have been hit by about 100 aftershocks since Friday’s tremors, officials said.
The quake hit just off central Sulawesi at a depth of 10 kilometres just before 1100 GMT – early evening in Sulawesi – the US Geological Survey said. Such shallow quakes tend to be more destructive.
Pictures supplied by the disaster agency showed a badly damaged shopping mall in Palu where at least one floor had collapsed onto the storey below, while other photographs showed major damage to buildings and large cracks across pavements.
The agency also said homes and a local hotel were flattened while a landmark city bridge was destroyed.
A key access road had been badly damaged and was blocked by landslides, the disaster agency said.
The main airport in Palu, capital of South Sulawesi province, was shut after the tsunami struck and was expected to stay closed for at least 24 hours, complicating any disaster relief efforts.
Friday’s tremor was also felt in the far south of the island in its largest city Makassar and on neighbouring Kalimantan, Indonesia’s portion of Borneo island.
The initial quake struck as evening prayers were about to begin in the world’s biggest Muslim majority country on the holiest day of the week, when mosques are especially busy.
Indonesia is one of the most disaster-prone nations on earth.
It lies on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, where tectonic plates collide and many of the world’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.
Earlier this year, a series of powerful quakes hit Lombok, killing more than 550 people on the holiday island and neighbouring Sumbawa.
Indonesia has been hit by a string of other deadly quakes including a devastating 9.1 magnitude tremor that struck off the coast of Sumatra in December 2004.
That Boxing Day quake triggered a tsunami that killed 220,000 throughout the region, including 168,000 in Indonesia.
In 2010, about 430 were killed when a huge quake sparked a tsunami off the coast of Sumatra, while more than 600 were killed in a quake-tsunami disaster on Java island.
Source: Tria Devianti, Sheena McKenzie/CNN International, Ola Gondronk/AFP