Indonesia says 5,000 now missing after quake and tsunami

The number of people believed missing after earthquakes and a tsunami hit Indonesia’s Sulawesi island late last month has risen dramatically to 5,000,  the country’s disaster management agency said on Sunday.

The agency said it had so far recovered 1,763 bodies as the death toll from the 7.5-magnitude earthquake continues to rise.

Rescuers continued to search for victims on Sunday with little hope of finding survivors 10 days after the September 28 disaster, but authorities said efforts to retrieve bodies would end on October 11.

Read more: Indonesia quake: ‘Tsunami warning system needs improvement’

Devastated neighborhoods

Those unaccounted for were mostly from Petobo and Balaro, two of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the badly affected city of Palu. People there may have been engulfed after the ground beneath them turned liquid in a phenomenon known to geologists as soil liquefaction.  

Scene of devastation in Petabo, a neighborhood of Palu (Reuters/A. Perawongmetha)

Petabo was almost completely flattened in the disaster

“Based on reports from the (village) heads of Balaroa and Petobo, there are about 5,000 people who have not been found,” a spokesman for the disaster agency said.

“It is not easy to obtain the exact number of those trapped by landslides, or liquefaction, or mud,” the spokesman, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, told reporters.

The government has been considering declaring the two areas to be mass graves and leaving them untouched. 

Read more: Climate-induced sea-level rise to worsen tsunami impacts

Indonesien Erdbeben & Tsunami | Hilfslieferungen in Palu, Sulawesi (Reuters/H. Hanschke)

The search-and-rescue NGO ISAR-Germany is also on the ground in Sulawesi

Growing relief efforts

Relief efforts to succor the some 200,000 people in desperate need of aid have meanwhile been stepped up, with planeloads of supplies sent from various countries, including Australia and the United States, arriving in Palu with increasing frequency. More than 82,000 military and civilian personnel, as well as volunteers, are helping in search operations and to distribute aid.

Boxes of supplies under the tail of a military plane (Reuters/H. Hanschke)

Aid supplies were slow to arrive but are now being stepped up

Tens of thousands have been left homeless by the disaster and are completely dependent on handouts to survive.

Indonesia is very prone to earthquakes, situated as it is on the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area often affected by seismic upheavals and volcanic eruptions.

In 2004, an earthquake off Sumatra triggered a tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

tj/ng (Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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