Death Toll Rises in Indonesia; Tsunami has Claimed Close to 1,350 Lives

The citizens of Palu are still dealing with the aftermath of Friday's earthquake.

On Friday, the city of Palu was overcome by a 20-foot tsunami after a 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit near Sulawesi.

The island is the 11th largest in the Indonesian archipelago, and Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi province, is home to 300,000 people and considered an emerging tourist destination. Five days after the initial catastrophe, widespread destruction and dwindling resources create a climate of fear and desperation, and damage to roads and infrastructure have made it difficult for resources to reach critically affected areas, leaving people to live in makeshift tents and loot stores for food and water.

Efforts to find survivors among demolished buildings and rubble has been slow work, with most rescue teams working by hand. On Sunday, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesperson for the disaster agency (BNBP), said they pulled 13 bodies and two survivors from the wreckage of malls and hotels. One hotel had an estimated 50 people trapped inside as of Monday morning.

Some lives ended horrifically when they were buried in mud in a phenomenon known as liquefaction. When soil is loose, waterlogged, and shaken violently (as it does during a strong earthquake), it can become unstable and sink unevenly, losing its ability to support structures such as houses and bridge foundations. Several thousand homes were lost in the region as the ground underneath them gave way. As of right now, more than 61,000 have fled their homes and are trying to escape a city plagued by bandits and "armed thugs."

BBC reporters in the area observed police guarding shops, with locals pressing for entry. Officers sprayed tear gas and fired shots in the air to disperse crowds. Stones were thrown at officers as tensions rose. Eventually, the authorities relented and allowed entry as people excitedly grabbed bags of food and drink.

Adek Berry/Agence France-Presse

On Monday, thousands of people wanting to escape the city flocked to the airport runway, breaking down fences and hugging the wheels of military planes attempting take-off. "We have not eaten for three days!" one woman yelled. "We just want to be safe!"

While there were plans to install a warning system after the severe 2004 tsunami, these plans were stalled due to intergovernmental disagreements. The little warning that citizens of Palu were supposed to get, a series of government-sponsored text messages, never went out because of earthquake interference. Because of this, many Indonesians feel that their government has failed them, both in the preparatory stages and in their dealing with the aftermath of the disaster.

In response to the devastation, humanitarian aid is now reaching the city in guarded convoys. More than 18 countries, including the United States and Australia, have pledged to help. President Trump told reporters on Monday that he dispatched first responders and the military to help with the "really bad, bad situation."

No significant foreign military aid has yet arrived in the region.

Joshua Smalley is a New York-based writer, editor, and playwright. Find Josh at his website and on Twitter: @smalleywrites.