Relief workers struggled to overcome rough seas to assess damage and to deliver aid to islands smashed by a deadly Indonesian tsunami, while a volcano elsewhere in the country continued to smolder, raising fears of more possible destruction to come. More than 300 were reported killed in the two disasters.
The death toll from Monday's tsunami in the remote Mentawai islands, some 12 hours by boat from Indonesian Sumatra, rose to 272 people, with more than 400 people missing, disaster officials said. Although the islands are sparsely populated compared with other parts of Indonesia, authorities expected the number of dead to keep rising as aid crews reached the most remote villages—a process that could take days or longer, aid workers warned.
Some relief boats heading for the islands were forced to turn back after leaving the Sumatran city of Padang due to high waves and bad weather, though a few planes and helicopters were able to arrive with tents, medicine and food. Aid workers said they hoped to expand deliveries of water and other supplies on Thursday.
Aid teams also were struggling to cope with challenges at Indonesia's Mt. Merapi, an active volcano on the island of Java that erupted late Tuesday, killing at least 30 people. Among the dead was an 83-year-old man known locally as a guardian of the volcano's spirits and a leader of ceremonies there to appease them.
Although the volcano was calmer Wednesday, experts were concerned that pressure inside remained high, with the potential for further major explosions in the days or weeks to come. It also is possible the volcano could release its pressure through a series of smaller, less destructive eruptions.
Either way, officials cautioned residents not to return to the volcano's slopes, but many streamed back on Wednesday, saying they needed to check on their crops and homes.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono decided to cut short a state visit to Vietnam that included a summit with regional leaders later this week to help manage the response to the twin disasters, the Associated Press reported.
Indonesia has long suffered from an unusually high number of earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters because of its location along a series of dangerous fault lines known as the Pacific Ring of Fire. But it is unusual for two such deadly events to occur at the same time, straining the capacity of aid groups.
The tsunami in the Mentawai island chain, a popular surfing spot, presents an especially difficult challenge, because it includes a large number of hard-to-reach inlets and relatively underdeveloped infrastructure, including telephone service. The tsunami was triggered by a 7.7-magnitude quake that hit late Monday 13 miles, or about 21 kilometers, beneath the ocean floor.
The quake occurred in an area close to a December 2004 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 226,000 people across Asia, in one of the worst natural disasters in modern history. But that quake was considerably larger than the latest one, initially recorded at 9.0 in magnitude. The waves it generated were far bigger—up to 10 meters, or 33 feet, high—wreaking havoc as far away as Sri Lanka and India. The tsunami in this case affected a relatively small zone that for now appears confined to parts of the Mentawai chain.
Ahmad Husein, a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Jakarta, said it was having a hard time communicating with a damage-assessment team it sent out late Tuesday afternoon. Although the group arrived early Wednesday, he said, phone connections were so bad that it wasn't immediately possible to get a damage report.
Some officials in the islands could be reached. Maitam, an official at the Operations and Disaster Management Center near the earthquake epicenter on North Pagai Island in the Mentawais, said in a telephone interview with The Wall Street Journal that at least five bridges had collapsed, while five mosques and about 300 houses were heavily damaged or destroyed. He said the information was only collected from about four villages, while 10 others hadn't been reached.
He said that while the area has had tsunamis before, this one was worse because it came so quickly after the earthquake that caused it, hitting shores about 20 minutes later. "We didn't have much time to save ourselves," he said.
Dave Jenkins, founder of a nonprofit health organization, SurfAid International, operating in the Mentawai islands, said he expected further damage reports to trickle in as response teams penetrated more villages. For now, villagers have to "fend for themselves," he said.
Indonesian authorities were stepping up efforts to deliver aid by cargo plane and helicopter, though the amount of aid coming through remained small. The National Disaster Management Agency along with other ministries was able to reach the islands Wednesday with a cargo plane delivering 550 tents, 80 blankets, five tons of rice and food supplies, and four tons of medicine, local media reported. The Indonesian Navy also was sending five warships with floating hospitals to the affected areas.
Some international aid organizations, which often rush to disasters, said they were holding back on sending teams because of the logistical difficulties in getting to the islands, while others said they wanted to wait to get more reports from the government about what was needed. TheWall Street Journal