Rescue operations continue on Sulawesi island in Indonesia a week after a devastating earthquake and tsunami last Friday. The death toll is now above 1,500, but that could rise as central areas of the hard-hit island have not yet been reached.

The aftermath of the September 29 earthquake after it hit Petobo neighbourhood in Palu, Indonesia, October 5, 2018.
The aftermath of the September 29 earthquake after it hit Petobo neighbourhood in Palu, Indonesia, October 5, 2018. (Reuters)

A week after a major earthquake brought devastation to Indonesia's Sulawesi island, Ichsan Hidayat found his sister and her baby daughter, who were killed when their neighbourhood became a churning sea of mud and debris.

Hidayat was not on Sulawesi last Friday when the 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck, triggering a phenomenon called soil liquefaction, which turns the ground into a roiling quagmire.

The neighbourhood of Petobo, in the south of Palu city, where his sister, Husnul Hidayat, lived with her 43-day daughter, Aisah, was wiped out.

Rescuers who recovered the bodies told Hidayat his sister was found clutching the baby to her chest.

"Today, I prayed that they are in a better place. They deserve better,” Hidayat said as he left Friday prayers at a mosque in the centre of Palu, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) northeast of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta.

The official death toll from the quake and the tsunami it triggered stands at 1,558, but it will certainly rise as bodies are recovered.

Missing bodies, destroyed homes

Most of the dead have been tallied in Palu. Figures for more remote areas, some still cut off by destroyed roads and landslides, are only trickling in, if at all.

No one knows how many people were dragged to their deaths when the ground under Petobo and nearby areas south of Palu, dissolved so violently.

The national disaster agency says 1,700 homes in one neighbourhood alone were swallowed up and hundreds of people killed.

Hasnah, 44, also a resident of Petobo, has trouble remembering all of the relatives she's trying to find in the tangled expanse of mud and debris.

"More than half of my family are gone," Hasnah said as she sobbed. "I can’t even count how many. Two of my children are gone, my cousins, my sister, my brother in law and their children, all gone."

Homes were sucked into the earth, torn apart and shunted hundreds of metres by the churning mud.

"The earth was like a blender, blending everything in its way,” said Hasnah, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name.

"They lied"

Hasnah said she has sufficient food and water but she's furious that a search and rescue operation in her area only began on Thursday.

"I’m so disappointed. They said they would come with the heavy machines but they didn’t. They lied."

Sick of waiting for help, villagers themselves have been searching, Hasnah said.

"We’ve mark the possible bodies with sticks. You can see a foot sticking out, but there's no one here to dig them out."

The first signs of recovery are evident in Palu. Electricity has been restored and some shops and banks have reopened and aid and fuel are arriving.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla, visiting the disaster zone, said recovery would be completed in two years, beginning with a two-month emergency response phase when everyone who lost their house would get temporary shelter.

Hospitals at full capacity, threat of infections linger

Doctors have been flocking to help from other parts of Indonesia.

The Budi Agung hospital has a capacity of 134 beds with about 20 more set up in a tent outside. They are all full.

Doctors said many patients have been at high risk of infection because they were buried in mud.

"The number and nature of injuries was far worse because of the liquefaction and mud," said one doctor, Muhammad Riendra.

Rescue workers are pushing into outlying districts, where residents say they have been scavenging for coconuts, bananas and cassava.

Villagers rushed a Red Cross helicopter that landed in a flood plain in Sigi district, south of Palu, on Friday to drop off blankets and tents, one witness said.

They scrambled for the supplies unloaded from the back of the aircraft as its rotors spun.

Sulawesi is one of the archipelago nation's five main islands, and like the others, is exposed to frequent earthquakes and tsunami.

Indonesia has the world's biggest Muslim population but also pockets of Christians, including on Sulawesi, and other religions.

Source: Reuters