Dead bodies remain strewn among the debris of collapsed buildings in the Indonesian city of Palu, where emergency workers are struggling to cope with the fallout after a devastating tsunami hammered the resort destination Friday.
More than 840 people have been confirmed dead thus far, with hundreds more yet to be discovered, Indonesian authorities warned. In fact, the death toll is expected to rise significantly in the coming days as authorities search for hundreds more bodies they fear are buried beneath collapsed buildings and homes.
On Friday, just after 6 p.m. local time (5 a.m. EDT), a 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit at a depth of over 6 miles, just off the central island of Sulawesi, setting off a tsunami.
Palu, a popular coastal resort town, was hit by waves as high as six meters, wiping out buildings, roads, and bridges, and burying homes under tons of mud.
Hundreds of people had gathered on the beach in the town for a festival when the waves hit, wiping away everything in their path.
Palu, home to 350,000 people, was the worst hit. Thousands of homes were destroyed, along with an eight-story hotel, a department store, and a hospital.
Another coastal city, Donggala, with a population of 270,000, was also badly hit by the tsunami, but because of poor communication lines, the full extent of the damage there has yet to register.
Though tsunami warnings were sent, many people did not receive them, as the quake had knocked out communication and power grids, stifling text messages and warning sirens.
Indonesia's meteorological and geophysics agency BMKG sent out an alert just after the initial quake hit, warning residents of potential waves of between 0.5 to three meters. But it has faced criticism for its decision to lift the warning just 34 minutes later.
The agency has defended its process, saying that the alert was only lifted after the third and last wave hit land.
Now, emergency workers are struggling to rescue survivors, slowed by power outages and a lack of heavy-lifting equipment. In some cases, volunteers have resorted to digging through the mud and rubble with their hands.
“Communication is limited, heavy machinery is limited… it's not enough for the numbers of buildings that collapsed," said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency.
On Monday, mass graves were dug in the hills above Palu, with authorities telling volunteers to prepare for up to 1,300 bodies.
For those who did survive Friday’s tsunami, they face urgent dwindling food, water, and fuel supplies. Some have resorted to looting stores and gas stations. Thousands more are flocking to the airport in the hope of escaping the devastation, but only a single flight a day is due to depart the area.
“The situation in the affected areas is nightmarish,” Jan Gelfand, Head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said in a statement. “The city of Pula has been devastated and the first reports out of Donggala indicate that it has also been hit extremely hard by the double disaster.”
Some Red Cross volunteers reported incidents of “liquefaction” where saturated soil has turned liquid and swallowed whole houses. On Sunday, Nugroho tweeted a terrifying video of liquefaction happening.
The tragedy has cast a light on Indonesia’s less-than-ideal early warning system, which consists of a network of 170 seismic broadband stations, 238 accelerometer stations, and 137 tidal gauges.
A spokesperson for the BMKG described it as “very limited,” due to a lack of funding for maintenance.
“Our [current] tools are very lacking," Rahmat Triyono told the BBC. “In fact, of the 170 earthquake sensors we have, we only have a maintenance budget for 70 sensors.”
The closest sensor to Palu is 200 kilometers away, and it significantly underestimated the size of the tsunami that hit on Friday.
Cover image: An aerial view of an area devestated by an earthquake in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 1, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/ Hafidz Mubarak A/ via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS