Updated at 6:17 p.m. ET on 2018-10-09
The death toll from an earthquake and tsunami that devastated Indonesia’s Sulawesi island has surpassed 2,000, authorities said Tuesday, as rescuers kept searching for thousands of other victims feared buried in mud.
At least 671 were listed as missing, but many more people have been buried when houses in three villages – Balaroa, Petobo and Jono Oge – were swallowed in mud and rubble caused by the quake on Sept. 28, the National Disaster Management Agency said.
“According to the chiefs of Balaroa and Petobo villages, there are about 5,000 people who have not been found. But this still needs verification,” agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said.
At least 2,000 houses in the villages were sucked under by torrents of mud when the magnitude 7.4 quake generated a process called liquefaction, where water-logged soil is turned into quicksand, officials said.
Local TV news footage on Tuesday showed volunteers using hydraulic jackhammers to break up concrete while others clawed through debris in search of bodies in a former residential area.
But recovering the remains of missing residents whose bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition could lead to outbreaks of infectious disease, officials warned.
Sutopo said a meeting with local government officials resulted in an agreement that the three villages would be off-limits to settlement and be converted into memorial parks where monuments to remember the dead would be built.
Sutopo said rescuers would mark the end of efforts to retrieve bodies in the three villages by holding prayers on Thursday, as he explained that the terrain composed of rubble and twisted metal made it difficult to carry on with recovery operations.
“Whether this will be extended will depend on the local capability and capacity to care for the displaced and other people affected,” agency chief Willem Rampangilei told reporters, referring to the plan to end search operations on Thursday.
An estimated 5,000 houses will need to be built for the surviving residents of the three villages, Sutopo said.
The economic cost of the disaster was estimated at 10 trillion rupiah (U.S. $657 million), officials said.
Foreign rescue groups told to leave Palu
Adding to the confusion on Tuesday, the disaster agency released a circular ordering foreign aid groups to pull their workers from the quake zone.
“Foreign citizens who are working with foreign NGOs are not allowed to conduct any activity on the sites affected by disasters,” according to the circular, which was posted on Twitter by Sutopo.
“Foreign NGOs who have deployed their foreign personnel are advised to retrieve their personnel immediately.”
It also said that foreign groups wishing to provide aid could do so through the Indonesian Red Cross. It’s not immediately clear how many foreign workers would be affected by the order, which analysts see as an effort to protect the government’s image as it manages the disaster.
The Foreign Ministry defended the restrictions, saying they were intended to ensure assistance was given based on real needs in the affected areas.
“If not, we will be in a situation where the presence of foreign aid workers, who have good intentions, may hamper the rescue and recovery work carried out by the national team,” ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said.
Indonesia has accepted aid from 18 countries, despite the government’s previous reluctance to welcome foreign assistance, partly because of fears it would be seen as incapable of handling disasters.
A South African aid group, the Gift of the Givers, arrived with 27 rescue and medical specialists but they spent the past three days in a hotel compound in Palu after being told not to leave the premises, Sky News television reported.
“It is very difficult to tell international teams arriving here, when you have already encountered massive costs, massive cargo and then say to international teams that they will be recalled,” team leader Ahmed Bham said.
“It doesn’t make sense at all. If you need boxes moved or aid carried, just let us know. We will distribute it,” he said.
“We have good medicines with us, we have the stuff they need here.”
Hours after the circular came out, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert announced that Washington would be providing $3.7 million in assistance to deliver essential relief items, including blankets and solar-powered lamps, to the devastated areas.
"USAID is also airlifting heavy-duty plastic sheeting to Indonesia to provide for emergency shelter needs of up to 110,500 people," she said in a statement, referring to the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The U.S. agency has also deployed a team of disaster experts to coordinate humanitarian efforts, Nauert said, adding that the Department of Defense had also provided three C-130 transport planes that helped deliver up to 63 metric tons of disaster-relief supplies into the affected areas.
"We have no reports of U.S. citizens who have been injured or killed by the earthquake or the tsunami," she said.
Foreigners continue search
Despite the restrictions, some foreigners were involved in the search effort in Palu and the neighboring Sigi regency on Tuesday, local search workers said.
“Our goal is the same regardless of nationality: to find victims and help people,” an Indonesian rescue worker who gave his name as Ival told BenarNews.
Mohamad Reza, a resident of Balaroa village, which was obliterated by the earthquake, said foreign aid workers were very much welcome.
“We support the presence of foreign rescuers, because they are helping our local volunteers. Look, how many bodies they have helped recover,” he said.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that an immunization drive would be conducted in eight regencies in Central Sulawesi, including Palu and Donggala, with camps for the displaced being a priority.
It said 15 hospitals and 50 primary health care centers in the quake-hit region had started operating.
“The most common diseases are diarrhea, fever, influenza-like illnesses and trauma injuries,” the WHO said.
“The risk of increased transmission of vector-borne diseases, such as dengue, chikungunya and malaria is anticipated as above-average rainfall is expected in affected areas in the coming weeks,” it said.
New quake rocks Palu
As health workers struggled to prevent the spread of diarrhea among the 74,000 people displaced by the disasters, a new earthquake with a magnitude 5.2 rocked Palu, the city that bore the brunt of last month’s temblor, officials said.
Seismologists said Tuesday’s quake struck at a depth of 10 km (six miles) with the epicenter 5 km (3 miles) northeast of Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s five main islands.
“The quake was felt strongly for five seconds,” Nugroho told reporters.
In the village of Silae, several homes damaged by the earlier earthquakes collapsed, but no one was hurt, witnesses told BenarNews.
“We were so afraid we ran out of the house,” said Raden Jaka, a resident of Silae.
Anwar Saing, 45, who sought refuge in a camp near the Darussalam Grand Mosque in western Palu, told BenarNews that his house was not badly damaged by the earthquake.
“Fortunately for us only the kitchen is damaged,” he said. “We’ve stayed here for too long. It’s time to go home.”
Indah Yanti, a resident of Donggala Kodi, was not so lucky. She will have to stay in a tent.
“Go home where? My house was destroyed,” she said.
Indonesia, located in the tectonically active Ring of Fire – an area in the basin of the Pacific Ocean – frequently suffered earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
On Dec. 26, 2004, about 130,000 people died in the nation’s westernmost province of Aceh when a magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck off the west coast of Sumatra, spawning a series of devastating tsunamis.
Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta contributed to this story.