Death toll tops 1,200 in deadliest Indonesian quake since 2006

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(Oct 2): The death toll from the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami topped 1,200 as authorities scrambled to bring food and medicines to thousands displaced by Indonesia’s deadliest such disaster in more than a decade.

Thousands of military and police personnel joined relief and rescue workers in the worst affected areas of Sulawesi island, now in its fourth day since the 7.4 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami unleashed a trail of devastation. President Joko Widodo ordered officials to intensify relief and rescue operations and boost the supply of essential items as reports of looting of food and other goods emerged.

Authorities prepared for the mass burial of about 900 dead bodies on Tuesday, even as the death toll jumped to 1,234, after rescuers found more bodies under flattened buildings. Almost 800 people were seriously injured and 99 missing, including a Belgian and South Korean, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho — a spokesman at the National Disaster Mitigation Agency — told reporters on Tuesday. More than 60,000 people were displaced, he said.

The toll may rise as rescuers were unable to extricate people suspected to be buried under buildings that collapsed due to soil liquefaction, a phenomenon that causes soil to lose its strength after violent shaking, according to Nugroho.

“Hundreds of people were probably buried because of soil liquefaction in two locations,” Nugroho said. “It’s difficult to get exact numbers and pinpoint the houses because the land condition has changed. Evacuation efforts are also hard because the soil is soft so we cannot use heavy equipment, all must be by hand.”

Many of the dead were found at beaches near the city of Palu, about 1,560 kilometers northeast of Jakarta, where an annual festival was being held. Tsunami waves as high as six meters hit the coast, after a massive quake damaged thousands of buildings in Palu and caused a major power failure and cut communication.

The government is weighing the option of renting a power plant vessel from Turkey to partly meet electricity needs of Palu, among the worst affected areas, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Wiranto, told a press conference. Several countries have pledged to send aircraft with essential supplies and medical kits, he said.

Indonesia’s 17,000 islands are prone to earthquakes because the country straddles the Pacific Ring of Fire, an arc of fault lines and volcanoes that cause frequent seismic upheavals. At least 160,000 people were killed on Sumatra island as a result of a 9.1 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004. More than 1,100 people were killed in another tsunami and earthquake in the same island in 2009.