The 7.5-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit the eastern Indonesian island of Sulawesi on Friday is confirmed to have killed hundreds of people, the New York Times reported on Saturday, with at least 405 confirmed deaths in the city of Palu and the toll likely to rise much higher as search-and-rescue teams continue to arrive. Hundreds more are injured. [See update below.]
The Times reported that the disaster leveled large swathes of the city in addition to nearby coastal communities, with thousands of structures destroyed. The precise number of dead may be difficult to determine, the paper added, as there were workers and security personnel present as “preparations were underway for a beachside festival with dances and other performances,” as well a high likelihood the tsunami pulled many people back into the ocean:
The twin disasters — a 7.5-magnitude earthquake, and the swirling wall of water it unleashed — killed at least 405 people in Palu and destroyed thousands of buildings there, including a shopping mall, a hotel, seaside restaurants and several mosques.
“We have found corpses from the earthquake as well as bodies swept up by the tsunami,” Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the Indonesian disaster agency, said in a television interview.
Indonesian officials were preparing for a sharp rise in the death toll because search-and-rescue teams had yet to reach populous coastal settlements near Palu. Vice President Jusuf Kalla of Indonesia told a local news website that thousands may have died, with an unknown number washed out to sea.
Kalla added that when the infamous Indian Ocean tsunami struck Aceh in northern Sumatra in 2004, a death toll initially indicated at 40 people eventually rose to over over 130,000 (estimates suggest at least 230,000 people died as a result of the disaster in total across 14 countries).
Palu, a city of 300,000, may have also been particularly hard struck because emergency alert systems that could have warned of the tsunami were rendered useless by collapsing cell towers during the earthquake, the Times wrote. Indonesia’s meteorological and physics agency also lifted its own tsunami advisory “little more than half an hour after the earthquake struck,” though it has not yet been determined whether the waves were already hitting the coast by the time it chose to do so.
The Washington Post reported that the nation’s emergency officials are investigating why many members of the public did not seem to have been properly alerted about the risk of the wave:
Indonesian officials also may face another reckoning over why the tsunami alerts were pulled even as a disaster was roaring ashore, raising questions about the level of monitoring and post-quake analysis in a nation along some of the world’s most active fault lines.
“People were still going about their activities on the beach and did not immediately run,” said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency, who said that hundreds were gathered in Palu for a beach party. The number of deaths, he said, will “continue to rise as the search continues.”
The emergency response is being hindered by damaged or destroyed roads, ports, and communications lines, the Post added, as well as the number of personnel still deployed to the island of Lombok following another devastating 6.9-magnitude earthquake that killed over 450 in August.
A 21-year-old air traffic controller at a regional airport, Anthonius Gunawan Agung, stayed at his post as other personnel evacuated, ensuring the takeoff of Batik Air Flight 6231. According to the Post, the plane had hundreds on board; the air traffic controller jumped from the tower to his death as its roof collapsed, while the pilot (identified by the Times as Ricosetta Mafella) posted a short video of the oncoming wave to Instagram.
“Thank God there is a voice (Holy Spirit i believe) telling me to depart early,” he wrote. “I’m rushing the boarding process. Late by 30 second i would not have flown.”
Though Indonesia is in the Ring of Fire—a roughly 25,000-mile chain of volcanoes and other tectonic hot spots that stretches across the Pacific Ocean and plays host to 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes—National Geographic reported that the tsunami was unexpected at this quake. It was recorded as the result of a “strike-slip fault,” during which tectonic plates grind against each other horizontally rather than vertically. Vertical displacement is more likely to cause a tsunami than horizontal movement of a fault.
According to National Geographic, University of Oxford geophysicist Baptiste Gombert said that the region’s geology is incredibly complex but initial signs are that landslides either above or below the water line played a role. It’s also possible the waves were amplified by the shape of the bay as the tsunami forced water into the restricted space.
Indonesia’s central statistics agency estimates that around 2.4 million people could be impacted by the disaster, according to the Times.
Update, September 30th, 2018 at 8:05pm ET: According to the New York Times, officials have now confirmed the death toll at over 800 people. That’s likely nowhere near the full extent of the devastation, unfortunately. Emergency personnel are now reportedly digging at least one mass grave in Palu; the paper also wrote that at the site of the collapsed eight-story Roa Roa Hotel, trapped people could be heard crying for help in the rubble. By Sunday evening, rescuers told the Times the voices had gone silent.
The Times also reported that in addition to other failures of regional emergency alert systems, buoys that could have detected the tsunami were offline:
The death toll, which had more than doubled from Sunday morning, was expected to climb much higher still, with heavily populated areas outside the city still cut off from communication and any assistance, and desperate search-and-rescue efforts continuing in the rubble of Palu, often with only rudimentary tools.
... With the prospect that thousands may have been killed, 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.