Indonesian Earthquake and Tsunami Death Toll Passes 830; World Vision Director Says ‘It Is Very Bad’

A mosque devastated by the earthquake that struck Palu, Indonesia, on Friday. A tsunami triggered by the quake killed hundreds.
EPA, via Shutterstock

Soaring over eastern Indonesia on Friday, Petra Mandagi exulted at the perfect conditions for a paragliding addict: azure skies, a sweet breeze and a picture postcard bay rippling below.

Even when a series of earthquakes began shaking the city of Palu on Friday afternoon after his paragliding competition had finished, Mr. Mandagi texted his wife in their hometown, Manado, and assured her that all was fine.

Less than an hour later, twin natural disasters — a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami that unleashed an 18-foot wave — turned parts of Palu and the surrounding strip of coastline into a graveyard. As of Sunday evening, national disaster mitigation officials said that at least 832 people had been confirmed killed.

The death toll, which had more than doubled from Sunday morning, was expected to climb much higher still, and questions began mounting as to why residents were not adequately warned of the tsunami, given the area’s long and deadly history of facing killer waves.

Among the problems: None of the 22 buoys spread over Indonesia’s open water to help monitor for tsunamis had been operational for the past six years, according to Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the spokesman for the country’s national disaster agency.

The eight-story hotel where Mr. Mandagi, 35, had been staying collapsed, burying him and around other 50 guests of the Roa Roa, including six more paragliders there to compete.

A search-and-rescue team recovering a body in Palu.
Antara Foto/Reuters

On Sunday, with no heavy equipment available, search-and-rescue workers used their hands to frantically claw through the rubble, with the voices of trapped victims calling out from the debris spurring on the brute manual effort.

A single body was pulled out of the hotel wreckage. But by Sunday evening, the site was eerily quiet, said Indonesian search-and-rescue staff.

“Petra went to Palu to do what he loved most, which is paragliding,” said Nixon Ray, Mr. Mandagi’s business partner in a paragliding business and a fellow adventure-sport enthusiast.

Mr. Ray, 51, decided at the last minute to skip the Palu competition but had urged Mr. Mandagi and two other friends to go without him.

“I feel like I sent them to a tragedy,” Mr. Ray said.

While search and rescue efforts in Palu centered on the Roa Roa Hotel and a shopping mall that had also crumpled, thousands of other buildings were destroyed by the powerful earthquake and the devastating tsunami.

Information is always fragmented in the immediate aftermath of a natural catastrophe. But Indonesia’s disaster management machinery has seemed at times overwhelmed, even in a country that is geographically positioned to habitually endure earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes.

Mr. Sutopo admitted that he found out about the killer wave that inundated Palu, deluging a beach festival as it crashed over the sand, through social media and television reports.

“The disaster funding continues to decrease every year,” Mr. Sutopo said. “The threat of disasters increases, disasters increase, but the B.N.P.B. budget decreases.”

B.N.P.B. is the Indonesian acronym for the national disaster mitigation agency.

On Sunday, rescue workers from domestic aid agencies trickled into Palu, having driven at least 20 hours from the nearest airport to set up their command centers in the devastated city. The Palu airport, damaged by the earthquake, was only accepting a limited number of planes laden with relief supplies.

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SOURCE: New York Times, Hannah Beech and Muktita Suhartono