The damage after an earthquake is seen in Palu, Central Sulawesi Province, Indonesia on September 30 2018. Picture: REUTERS
The damage after an earthquake is seen in Palu, Central Sulawesi Province, Indonesia on September 30 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Palu — Indonesia scrambled on Monday to get help into quake-hit Sulawesi island as survivors streamed away from their ruined homes and accounts of devastation filtered out of remote areas, including the death of 34 children at a Christian camp.

The confirmed death toll of 844 was certain to rise as rescuers reached devastated outlying communities hit on Friday by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami waves as high as 6m.

Dozens of people were reported to be trapped in the rubble of several hotels and a mall in the small city of Palu, 1,500km northeast of Jakarta. Hundreds more were feared buried in landslides that engulfed villages.

Of particular concern is Donggala, a region of 300,000 people north of Palu and close to the epicentre of the quake, and two other districts, where communication had been cut off. The four districts have a combined population of about 1.4-million.

One woman was recovered alive from ruins overnight in the Palu neighbourhood of Balaroa, where about 1,700 houses were swallowed up when the earthquake caused soil to liquefy, the national rescue agency said.

The death toll from Indonesia's twin disaster of a major earthquake and tsunami may end up in the thousands, officials say, and the affected area may be bigger than initially thought.

“We don’t know how many victims could be buried there, it’s estimated hundreds,” said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency.

Mass grave

All but 23 of the confirmed deaths were in Palu, a city of about 380,000 people, where workers were preparing a mass grave to bury the dead.

Nearly three days after the quake, the extent of the disaster was not known with authorities bracing for the toll to climb — perhaps into the thousands — as connections with remote areas along the coast are restored.

Aid worker Lian Gogali, who had reached Donggala district by motorcycle, said hundreds of people facing a lack of food and medicine were trying to get out, but evacuation teams had yet to arrive and roads were blocked.

Indonesian Red Cross spokeswoman Aulia Arriani said a church in an area of Sigi, south of Palu, had been engulfed in mud and debris. Officials said the area suffered liquefaction, when the shock of the quake temporarily destabilises the soil.

“My volunteers found 34 bodies ... children who had been doing a bible camp,” Arriani said.

Sulawesi is one of the nation’s five main islands and sits astride fault lines.

Numerous aftershocks have rattled the region. Pictures show expanses of splintered wood, washed-up cars and trees mashed together, with rooftops and roads split asunder. Access to many areas is being hampered by damaged roads, landslides and collapsed bridges.

A Reuters witness said queues at petrol stations on the approaches to Palu stretched for miles. Convoys carrying food, water and fuel awaited police escorts to prevent pilfering before heading towards the city while residents streamed out.

The state energy company said it was airlifting fuel, while Indonesia’s logistics agency said it would send hundreds of tons of rice. The government has allocated 560-billion rupiah ($37.58m) for the recovery.

The government has played down worries about looting though witnesses have seen incidents. Chief security minister Wiranto said more than 2,800 troops had been deployed and plans were in place to send in a further 2,000 police.

The government would accept offers of help from 18 countries and it had also commandeered 20 excavators from mines and plantations to help with a shortage of equipment to dig through wreckage and clear blocked roads, he said.

Nearly 60,000 people were displaced, many terrified by powerful aftershocks, and they needed tents, water and sanitary facilities, while the power utility was working to restore electricity, he said.

Commercial flights have yet to resume but military aircraft were taking people out of Palu. About 3,000 people thronged the airport hoping to get out.

A quake in 2004 triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 people in Indonesia.

Reuters