Damaged roads, bridges and airports are creating a logistical nightmare for the Indonesian government and relief agencies as they try to get vital supplies to Palu, four days after the city and its surrounding areas were devastated by an earthquake and tsunami.
At least 844 people have been confirmed dead, but officials expect that number to rise as rescuers reach towns and villages cut off since the disaster struck on Friday evening. Some 50,000 people are known to have lost their homes.
Indonesia has asked for international assistance from governments and aid agencies to deal with the humanitarian crisis. Countries including Japan, the US, China and Turkey have already offered to help, according to the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre), which is coordinating the aid effort with the Indonesian government.
Jan Gelfand, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Country Cluster Support office in Jakarta, whose teams are in the disaster zone, described the situation as, “nightmarish”. The organisation said Palu has been devastated and it is only now getting access to Donggala, an area on the coast to the north of Palu.
“Red Cross and other teams are working round the clock but the biggest challenge at the moment is getting access to all communities, and then bringing large quantities of vital relief supplies into the disaster zone,” Gelfand said in a statement. “Transport links, power and communications are still down.”
The Indonesian government has identified six priority needs: air transport, tents, water purification, generators, field hospitals and disease control.
Aid efforts are being hampered by damage to the airport, which is forcing more traffic, including aid trucks, onto the roads. The airport’s runway ruptured during the quake making it impossible for many planes to land, and the control tower ruined.
“We need to clear the logistics highway,” Arnel Capili, Director of Operations at AHA Centre, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview from Jakarta. “It’s one thing to bring the assistance to Palu. We then have to get it out to the other affected areas.”
Kuala Lumpur-based Mercy Malaysia is preparing to send a medical team to Sulawesi in the next two to three days. “Our focus in the first week is usually health,” said Mercy Malaysia President Dr Ahmad Faizal Mohd Perdaus. “We are capable of deploying a field hospital and a full team, but the issue is logistics.”
Mercy’s rapid assessment team is on its way to Palu to get a better assessment of what’s needed, and how it can best be delivered.
“Roads, bridges and other infrastructure have been damaged also as a result of landslides, some of them pretty big ones,” Dr Ahmad Faizal said, adding it had taken far longer for the assessment team to get to the affected area than expected.
The bodies of 34 children were recovered after a landslide buried a church in Sigi Biromaru district. Another 52 students were reportedly missing.
In searing heat and humidity, the situation in Palu has become increasingly desperate since the 7.5-magnitude quake, and the tsunami that followed shortly afterwards. The authorities have begun to bury bodies in mass graves amid concern about disease, while some survivors have resorted to looting shops for basic supplies. Crowds have formed at petrol stations, where supplies are almost exhausted.
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the spokesperson for Indonesia’s disaster agency, said 10 fuel tankers, accompanied by a police escort, were on their way to the city to alleviate shortages with the national oil company, Pertamina, planning more deployments. Efforts are also under way to restore electricity.
Some areas of the city were swallowed up by liquefaction, with hundreds of people thought to be buried in the mud. Liquefaction takes place when loose, wet soil is shaken by the force of the earthquake and starts to behave like a liquid.
On Tuesday, a team from the National Search and Rescue Agency rescued a 38-year-old man who had been trapped since Friday in a financial building in the area. Video obtained by the Reuters news agency showed the still conscious man pulled gently from the rubble after three hours, and taking a few steps to a waiting stretcher.
Local media say hundreds of people have thronged to the airport in recent days trying to get out of the stricken city. A navy vessel capable of taking 1,000 people at a time is likely to be deployed to help with evacuations.