Palu struggles back to life after deadly quake

Palu struggles back to life after deadly quake

Two women survey the Balaroa neighbourhood, rendered uninhabitable by soil liquefaction. Photo: Reuters
Two women survey the Balaroa neighbourhood, rendered uninhabitable by soil liquefaction. Photo: Reuters

It was just over two weeks ago that a 7.4 magnitude earthquake jolted the seaside town of Palu on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi as residents were preparing to stage a festival.

The quake triggered a tsunami that reached up to seven metres high in the capital of Central Sulawesi and coastal areas in neighbouring districts. People who had started to gather on Talise Beach for the festival to celebrate the 40th anniversary of city status were swept away.

The quake triggered another calamity farther inland in the Balaroa and Petobo residential areas where at least 2,500 houses are located. The ground began to shake at 6.02pm, a time when most people would have been at home. The land on which the houses were built became saturated with water and subsequently weakened and liquefied in a natural phenomenon called soil liquefaction.

Survivors have described the moment when their houses were sucked into the ground and how an entire village suddenly disappeared into the quicksand-like soil.

The local government had hoped to conclude the first phase of rescue and recovery operations last Friday, but the emergency phase has been extended until Oct 26 to allow more time to channel humanitarian aid to quake-stricken areas. A total of 87,725 people have been displaced and the number of people known to have died had reached 2,073 as of last Thursday.

There were 32 Thai nationals in Palu at the time of the quake but all were accounted for, according to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB). One decided to stay for personal reasons while the rest were evacuated safely.

Longki Djanggola, the governor of Central Sulawesi, said authorities needed more time to clear rubble, erect temporary housing and restore infrastructure such as communications and electricity.

"There are a number of options for new land plots to build temporary housing. The ministry of public housing and public works is expected to finish building the houses in two months," BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told journalists on Thursday.

Each temporary structure will cost between 8 million and 15 million rupiah (US$525 to $985) to house up to two families, depending on the design, he said.

About 90% of electricity supply in the city had been restored and banks, schools, markets, petrol stations and medical facilities had started to operate again. A total of 10,679 people were injured and have been receiving treatment in 14 hospitals and 50 public health centres in disaster-hit areas, he added.

Nugroho said the government was calculating the losses from the triple disaster but it was estimated the economic losses could exceed 10 trillion rupiah ($660 million).

President Joko Widodo expressed his gratitude for Asean solidarity and support in times of disaster in a speech at the Asean leaders' meeting on the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank annual meetings in Bali on Thursday.

"I would like to convey our thanks and highest appreciation for the support and solidarity shown by Indonesia's friends. Your support makes us stronger," he said.

"We are still focused on the emergency phase and hopefully we can finalise it in a month or at most in two months."

Although reluctant at first, Indonesia finally welcomed foreign aid four days after the quake struck. It said its priority was to have access to aircraft that could land on the runway at the incapacitated Palu airport to fly in water treatment and fogging equipment, tents, medical supplies, power generators and other essential items.

The BNPB said at least 15 countries had lent their support to channel humanitarian aid through Balikpapan, the provincial capital of East Kalimantan about a 45-minute flight from Palu.

Asean countries have channelled their financial and relief support through the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre), which has also deployed an emergency-response team.

But the outpouring of support from foreign countries has also caused some headaches despite the good intentions, with reports emerging from Palu that foreign workers were told by authorities to leave the city.

Problems have arisen with some foreign NGOs going out into the field without authorities responsible for coordinating relief work knowing what they were doing or where they were going.

The BNPB has declared that ever international NGP must partner with a local NGO and must not go into the field without a local partner. Those who have procured relief items need to register them with related agencies.

Arrmanatha Nasir, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said the policy was not intended to prevent assistance or volunteers from entering the province.

"It is important that recovery efforts are well coordinated," he said. "We do not want to end up in a situation where we are receiving assistance, where there are already adequate supplies or capacity on the ground, while we are not receiving assistance that we really need or lack capacity on the ground."

Nasir said that too many foreign aid workers, despite good intentions, can "in actual fact hamper rescue and recovery efforts", which is why they are being asked to coordinate and receive approval prior to entering the province.

Amnesty International branded the restrictions a "sad example of bureaucracy trumping humanity".

Usman Hamid, the group's executive director for Indonesia, told Asia Focus that too many regulations would set back the relief effort at a critical time. "Indonesia has the obligation to seek international assistance when needed, to protect essential levels of economic, social and cultural rights, and must facilitate that assistance," he said.

"Instead of rejecting the help of international volunteers -- many of whom are in Palu already -- authorities should coordinate and integrate them into the government's own lifesaving work."

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