A total of 1,411 people have been confirmed dead and over 2,500 injured after the monster earthquake struck Friday sending destructive waves barrelling into Sulawesi island.
The disaster reduced buildings in the seaside city of Palu to rubble but, with transport links badly affected, aid has been slow to arrive and looting has broken out.
On Thursday police armed with guns stood guard outside petrol stations to ensure order in long, winding queues. Trucks carrying supplies have reportedly been ransacked en route to Palu.
Authorities initially turned a blind eye but have now taken a tougher stance, with police rounding up dozens of suspected looters and the military warning that soldiers will fire on anyone caught stealing.
At least 600,000 children have been affected by the quake, Save the Children said, with many sleeping on the streets among ruins.
Attention has focused on the huge number of children left orphaned, or separated from their families in the chaos as buildings collapsed across Palu and people were swept away by huge waves.
Aid organisations are urgently working with the government to identify and reunite them with their relatives, the group said.
“It’s hard to imagine a more frightening situation for a child,” said Zubedy Koteng, the group’s child protection adviser, who is in the city.
“Many children are in shock and traumatised, alone and afraid. Young children searching for surviving relatives will have witnessed and lived through horrific experiences which no child should ever have to see.”
Trickle of aid
The Indonesian government initially refused to accept international help, insisting its own military could handle the response, but as the scale of the disaster became clear President Joko Widodo reluctantly agreed to allow in foreign aid groups and governments.
Palu airport — which was only accepting military flights in the early stages of the disaster — opened to commercial services Thursday but only a limited number, with aid workers given priority.
An Indonesian navy ship docked in the city Thursday carrying water, rice and food, which was loaded by soldiers onto trucks.
“We have to get to places where people need aid really quickly,” said first admiral Dwi Sulakson.
The United Nations has pledged $15 million from its emergency response fund. The Red Cross is dispatching ships loaded with supplies including field kitchens, tents, body bags and mosquito nets.
In a country with a long-standing problem with “fake news”, authorities vowed to clamp down after false reports related to the disaster circulated online, including one saying another quake had hit Sulawesi.
“The ministry has a role to ensure that Indonesia’s internet sphere is free from hoaxes,” he said.
Rescuers seeking survivors are focusing on half a dozen key sites around Palu, including a shopping mall and the Balaroa area where the sheer force of the quake turned the earth temporarily to mush.
“There is always hope,” said the group’s president Philippe Besson. But he added that “the building is really extremely unstable… since yesterday, there has been so much wind that the building was starting to move on its own.”
Authorities have set a tentative deadline of Friday to find anyone still trapped under rubble, at which point the chances of finding anyone alive will dwindle to almost zero.
There have been small signs of things returning to normal. Power has returned to parts of Palu, phone networks are back up and even some markets are open for business.
Indonesia sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, the world’s most tectonically active region, and its 260 million people are vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. —AFP