Home > Asia, Environment > Indonesia Death Toll Rises

Indonesia Death Toll Rises


Rescuers Reaching Remote Areas Find More Victims of Tsunami; Volcano Erupts Again

By PATRICK BARTA And YAYU YUNIAR

ReutersBodies lie in the tsunami-hit Muntei Baru Baru village in the Cikakap subdistrict of Indonesia‘s Mentawai islands Tuesday.

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The rising death toll in Indonesia’s latest deadly tsunami points to a key weakness in global efforts to refine early-warning systems: Many of the most vulnerable people are the most difficult to reach.

The number of dead in the remote Mentawai islands rose to 370 Thursday, after assessment crews reached more villages and inlets that were inundated by waves following Monday’s 7.7-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesian Sumatra. Hope was fading that many of the 300 or more people still missing would be found alive, as relief crews continued to find corpses scattered across roads and coastal areas. Some bodies likely were swept away to sea, officials said.

Meanwhile, on Indonesia’s more heavily populated island of Java, the volatile volcano Mt. Merapi began erupting again, two days after it killed at least 33 people. There were no immediate reports of new injuries or damage from Thursday’s clouds of hot ash. Many residents in the area had already been evacuated, with many now living in temporary refugee camps.

As one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, Indonesia has played a lead role in trying to develop more sophisticated early-warning systems for tsunamis, especially after a December 2004 earthquake in the same area as Monday’s caused one of the deadliest tsunamis ever recorded, killing more than 226,000 people across Asia.

Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries spent millions of dollars to install sirens and implement other programs, including cellphone SMS warning systems that alert coastal inhabitants whenever a tsunami is suspected.

Associated PressIndonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, center, surveys damages on the tsunami-ravaged Pagai island.

INDOQUAKE

Experts believe those systems have made major population centers and resort areas such as Phuket in Thailand and Padang, on Indonesia’s Sumatran coast, better-prepared than they were a few years ago. Some tsunami alerts were circulated in Padang Monday, though the waves there were too small to cause significant damage.

But it is all but impossible to deploy sirens in all the areas where they are needed, experts say, given Asia’s vast coastlines. In other cases, including portions of Myanmar, India and Indonesia, many residents don’t have mobile phones or radios, meaning they can’t receive alerts transmitted wirelessly. That was the case in the Mentawai islands, which have been home to hunter-gatherer tribes and now are a popular destination for surfers and backpackers getting away from the world.

The result is that huge stretches of Asia are still at risk, experts say, with some of the more devastating future tsunamis likely to cause loss of life in remote areas that aren’t well-covered by the expanding early-warning safety net.

“Indonesia cannot afford to put sirens in all areas—it can only do it in populated areas,” says Sanny Ramos Jegillos, a regional crisis-prevention and recovery coordinator for the United Nations Development Program in Southeast Asia. A more realistic option for rural communities, he says, is to focus on training villagers so they run for higher ground whenever they feel an earth quake.

Even that might not have saved victims in the Mentawai islands, since many residents were likely asleep when the quake struck. The epicenter was so close that some people may have only had a few minutes to escape before the tsunami, as high as 10 feet in some places, hit the shores.

There were also reports Thursday that some early-detection equipment installed by Indonesian officials since 2004 hasn’t been functioning properly in recent months, though tsunami experts said it was unlikely such failures contributed to a significantly higher death toll in the Mentawai islands.

Indonesia’s warning system relies in part on buoys deployed far from the shore to detect unusual changes in water levels, but the buoys are hard to keep in good working order, with fishermen sometimes attaching their boats to them or stealing components.

Officials said parts of the system have broken down due to inadequate maintenance, the Associated Press reported, citing the head of Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency. Attempts to contact the official Thursday were unsuccessful. Either way, experts say the region needs to invest more heavily in detection buoys to provide more data so they can better identify areas that are at-risk after an earthquake.

“The region is highly vulnerable” unless it invests more heavily in early detection, says Samith Thammasaroj, a disaster expert who has served as chairman of Thailand’s National Disaster Warning Administration. “More people will die because of this” in the future, he said. In Thailand, he said, there was only one measurement buoy in key areas between the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea, but it was stolen. There are plans to add two new ones at the end of this year, he said.

Ade Edward, head of operations at Indonesia’s West Sumatra Regional Disaster Management Agency, said that relief crews in the Mentawai islands had been able to drop emergency aid from the air in areas where food and other supplies were running low. He said that although the death toll is expected to rise, he doubted it would jump dramatically, as relief workers were starting to get a better handle on the scale of the damage and had a better sense of how many villages were affected.

Write to Yayu Yuniar at yayu.yuniar@wsj.com and Patrick Barta at patrick.barta@wsj.com

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