By Prarthana Mitra
Without fair warning and with fatal intensity, a series of earthquakes shook the coastal city of Palu in Indonesia this weekend, leaving a spate of casualties and destruction behind.
The tremors, which are a common occurrence in this part of the subcontinent, began on Friday. But matters took a drastic turn when twin natural disasters, in the form of a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and an 18 feet high tsunami, hit the coastline later that day.
The cumulative impact of the earthquake and tsunami has rendered nearly 17,000 people, according to an estimate by local non-profits and aid organisations. A prominent tourist destination, Palu’s shopping malls, hotels, homes and roads have all suffered and contributed to the current misery.
By Monday morning, the death toll figured somewhere around 832, according to national disaster mitigation officials. It is expected to rise higher, as rescue operations haven’t yet reached several heavily populated areas beyond the city limits.
Coastal settlements, like the fishing and diving community of Donggala, have been largely cut off by landslides and other debris. Officials fear that the death toll from the twin quakes could be higher on the island of Sulawesi.
The flood has made survival and rescue operations extremely difficult. The official rescue team took over 20 hours to reach the city, especially since Palu’s Mutiara SIS Al-Jufrie airport was also affected by the wave. Moreover, funding, supplies and staffing from overseas and foreign aid agencies cannot secure entry until the site of a calamity has been declared a national disaster zone yet.
Meanwhile, corpses are being lined up and mass graves being dug across the devastated city. Survivors and local residents are lending a hand in the search, clawing through the rubble with bare hands in the absence of equipment, and responding to the cries of those buried below.
The absence of warning and calls to evacuate has also invited ire and inquiry since the zone is historically prone to frequent seismic activity. And yet, disaster funding continues to diminish with each passing year. According to the spokesman for the country’s national disaster agency, of the 22 buoys across Indonesia’s open waters meant to monitor tsunamis, not one had been operational for the past six years.
President Joko Widodo, having visited Palu on Sunday, noted the shortage of heavy equipment, fuel, electricity and food. “There are many challenges,” he said to the local press. “We have to do many things soon, but conditions do not allow us to do so.”
Stories of bravery
In the meantime, extraordinary feats of bravery and duty are emerging from the annals of the ravaged town. Twenty-one-year-old Anthonius Gunawan Agung, an Indonesian air traffic controller, became a posthumous hero for refusing to leave his post at the airport, even after earthquakes had begun and his colleagues had evacuated, so that he could guide a passenger jet safely off the ground.
Soon after, the tremors worsened following which he jumped from the tower, suffering severe internal injuries. He was taken to a nearby hospital but died before he could be transported to a better-equipped facility.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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