Race to get aid to Indonesian quake victims as death toll rises

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Aid workers are racing to get shelter, food, medicine and other badly needed supplies to the Indonesian port city of Palu, which was ravaged by a powerful earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 1,400 people.

The Indonesian military is bringing in hundreds more troops to help with search and rescue efforts and keep order among survivors who have grown desperate six days after their lives were thrown into chaos.

Hundreds of the injured and other survivors lined up at Palu’s badly damaged airport, hoping to escape aboard military aircraft.

Locates epicentre of Indonesian earthquake
(PA Graphics)

Philip Besson, of the French organisation Pompiers de l’urgence, said the team “detected the presence of a victim” in the wreckage of the Mercure Hotel but was not able to say if the person is conscious.

Mr Besson said the team was unable to reach the victim, who was trapped under thick concrete, as it only had a hand drill and so stopped digging as night fell.

He said the team will bring heavy equipment early on Friday to try to rescue the person.

A man walks past the remains of structures at a park in Palu
A man walks past the remains of structures at a park in Palu (Aaron Favila/AP)

As help and supplies began arriving, there were other signs of progress.

Trucks were hauling in new electricity poles, with workers saying they intended to repair all the damage to the networks and substations and get them reconnected to the grid within days.

The United Nations announced a 15 million dollar allocation to support relief efforts, saying more than 200,000 people were in dire need of assistance.

More than 70,000 homes are thought to have been wrecked by the quake, demolished by the tsunami or engulfed by mud slides.

Thousands of people are sleeping in tents or in rough shelters made from debris, unsure when they will be able to rebuild.

Many spend their days trying to secure basics such as clean water and fuel for generators.

A girl fills water jugs at a temporary shelter in Palu
A girl fills water jugs at a temporary shelter in Palu (Tatan Syuflana/AP)

“It’s better to go directly to each and every tent. Because sometimes (the relief goods) aren’t distributed evenly.”

“It’s really difficult to find water and we don’t have a place to shower, but thank God we got some aid from the government, including a medical checkup,” said Masrita Arifin, who was camped out a few hundred metres from her family’s heavily damaged home.

National disaster agency spokesman Supoto Purwo Nugroho said most of the 1,424 confirmed dead had been buried.

The death toll is expected to rise as rescue crews dig and comb through debris after being slowed initially by impassable roads and other damage.

People and heavy machinery were struggling to unearth victims from expanses of earth that surged sideways due to liquefaction, a phenomenon in which an earthquake turns loose, wet soil into quicksand-like mud.

Several communities were wiped out as homes suddenly sank into the mire, which has since hardened in the tropical sun.

Many victims might have survived with faster help, said Palu resident Bambang.

He told local television he found a friend injured and trapped under debris but was unable to help him.

The friend died, leaving a message to have him buried in front of his church, he said.

“He was still alive then, but he died because the evacuation was so slow,” said Bambang, who like many Indonesians uses one name.

Indonesian military personnel help distribute relief aid at Mutiara Sis Al-Jufri airport
Indonesian military personnel help distribute relief aid at Mutiara Sis Al-Jufri airport (Tatan Syuflana/AP)

Mr Marsudi said 18 countries had offered help and the government was still working out arrangements with some countries, including Japan and the United States.

The aircraft will be used to transport supplies and evacuate victims, he said.

National police spokesman Brigadier General Dedi Prasetyo said security was being ramped up to ensure law and order after 92 people were arrested for looting goods such as motor oil, tyres and farming equipment.

Authorities earlier allowed desperate villagers to grab food supplies from shops but warned them not to take other things.

Palu has repeatedly been hit by the quakes and tsunamis that plague much of the Indonesian archipelago.

The national disaster agency said more than 148 million Indonesians are at risk in earthquake-prone areas and 3.8 million people also face danger from tsunamis, with at most a 40-minute window for warning people to flee.

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