PALU: More than 1,200 people are now known to have died in the quake-tsunami that smashed into Sulawesi, Indonesia said on Tuesday, as police pledged to clamp down on looting by survivors taking advantage of the chaos.
There were reports of officers firing warning shots and tear gas to ward off people ransacking shops in Palu, a coastal city ravaged by a 7.5-magnitude quake and the tsunami it spawned.
Survivors are battling thirst and hunger, with food and clean water in short supply, and local hospitals are overwhelmed by the number of injured.
Police said on Tuesday that they had previously tolerated desperate survivors taking food and water from closed shops, but had now arrested dozens of people for stealing computers and cash.
Despite official assurances, desperation was evident on the streets of Palu, where survivors clambered through wreckage hunting for anything salvageable. Others crowded around daisy-chained power strips at the few buildings that still have electricity, or queued for water, cash or petrol being brought in via armed police convoy.
Queues to get a few litres of petrol lasted more than 24 hours in some places. Sanitation is also a growing problem. “People everywhere want to go to the toilet but there’s no toilet. So we do it along the road at night,” said 50-year-old Armawati Yarmin.
Rescue efforts have been hampered by a lack of heavy machinery, severed transport links, the scale of the damage, and the Indonesian government’s initial reluctance to accept foreign help.
The official death toll from the tragedy in central Sulawesi stood at 1,234, according to the government.
The Indonesian military is leading the rescue effort, but following a reluctant acceptance of help by President Joko Widodo, international NGOs also have teams on the ground in Palu. Among the dead are dozens of students whose lifeless bodies were pulled from their landslide-swamped church in Sulawesi.