Indonesia starts to count disasters’ cost

Indonesia is struggling to recover today from the horrific one-two punch of natural disasters which struck the region.

On Monday, an earthquake triggered a tsunami which looks to have killed more than 300 people, mostly remote villagers. Then 24 hours later Indonesia’s most volatile volcano erupted.

That blast on Mount Merapi has killed at least 30 people, who make the slopes of the active volcano their home and workplace.

Authorities warned the thousands who fled Mount Merapi’s wrath not to return during yesterday’s lull in volcanic activity, but some villagers were desperate to check on crops and possessions left behind. In several areas, everything – from the thinnest tree branch to couches and chairs inside homes – was caked with ash that looked like powdery snow.

The latest blast eased pressure that had been building up behind a lava dome perched on the crater. But experts warned the dome could still collapse, causing an avalanche of the blistering gas and debris trapped beneath it.

“It’s a little calmer today,” said Surono, the chief of the Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation. “No hot clouds, no rumbling.

But a lot of energy is pent up back there. There’s no telling what’s next.”

Mount Merapi, which translates as “Fire Mountain,” has erupted many times over the last 200 years, often with deadly results. In 1994, 60 people were killed, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were incinerated, leaving up to 1,300 dead.

Still, as with other volcanoes in Indonesia, more than 11,000 people call its fertile slopes home.

Officials said earlier that by closely monitoring the volcano they hoped they could avoid casualties, but the death toll was quickly rising.

Aris Triyono, of the national search and rescue agency, said his teams were searching the southern slope of the mountain, which has been pounded by rocks and debris, in search of victims and survivors.

Dr. Teguh Dwi Santosa, a doctor at a local hospital, said the death toll climbed to 30 on Wednesday, and 17 had been hospitalised, mostly with burns, respiratory problems and other injuries.

Among the dead was Maridjan, an 83-year-old man who had been entrusted by a highly respected late king to watch over the volcano’s spirits.

“We found his body,” said Suseno, a rescue worker, amid reports that the old man was found kneeling face-down on the floor, a typical prayer position.

Maridjan, who for years led ceremonies in which rice and flowers were thrown into the crater to appease spirits, has angered officials in the past by refusing to leave during eruptions.

They accused him of setting a wrong example and stopping other villagers from leaving, but Maridjan always said he would only go if he got a sign from the long-dead king who appointed him.

Though thousands of villagers streamed into makeshift emergency shelters after Tuesday’s powerful eruption, many defied official warnings and started returning Wednesday, saying they had to tend to their crops and protect their homes.

“We’ll do everything we can to stop them,” said Hadi Purnomo, the district chief in Sleman, describing several formerly plush villages south of the crater as “death zones.” “There’s no life there. The trees, farms, houses are scorched. Everything is covered in heavy gray ash.”

Several other areas, however, were virtually untouched.

“I keep thinking about what’s happening up there,” said Hadi Sumarmo, who has a farm in Srumbung, a village 7km from the cone. “I just want to go back to check. If I hear sirens, I’ll get out again quickly.”

Meanwhile, helicopters with emergency supplies finally landed yesterday on the remote Indonesian islands slammed by a tsunami that killed more than 300.

Indonesia is prone to such disasters, and it installed a tsunami warning system after a catastrophic wave killed hundreds of thousands of people in 2004. An official said Wednesday, however, that the system stopped working a month ago because of poor maintenance.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono cut short a state visit to Vietnam to deal with the dual disasters that struck Indonesia in one 24-hour period, straining the country’s ability to respond.

The first aerial surveys of the region hit by the 3m tsunami revealed huge swaths of land underwater and the crumbled rubble of homes torn apart by the wave. One house lay tilted, resting on the edge of its red roof, with tires and slabs of concrete piled up on the surrounding sand.

Two days after an undersea earthquake spawned the killer wave, the casualty count was still rising as rescuers landed for the first time on the Mentawai island chain, which was closest to the epicentre and the worst hit. Bad weather had kept them away previously.

The first cargo plane loaded with 16 tons of tents, medicine, food and clothes arrived Wednesday afternoon, said disaster official Ade Edward. Four helicopters also landed in Sikakap, a town on North Pagai island, which will be the center of relief operations.

“Finally we have a break in the weather,” said Edward, putting the number of people killed by the wave so far at 311. “We have a chance now to look for more than 400 still missing.” He said the searches would take place by helicopter.

The 7.7-magnitude quake struck late Monday just 20km beneath the ocean floor on the same fault line along Sumatra island’s coast that caused a 2004 quake and monster Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.

The tsunami warning system installed after that disaster – which includes a series of buoys that detect sudden changes in water level and send alerts – began experiencing problems in 2009, said Fauzi, the head of the Meteorology and Geophysic Agency.

As a result, he said, not a single siren sounded after Monday’s tsunami. It was unclear if a warning would have made a difference, since the islands worst affected were so close to the epicentre that the tsunami would have reached them within minutes.

The group that set up the system, the Germany-Indonesia agency Tsunami Early Warning System (GITEWS), could not be reached late yesterday.

Both the quake and the volcanic eruption happened along Indonesia’s portion of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a series of fault lines that are prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.

Tsunami disaster officials, meanwhile, were still trying to get to more than a dozen villages on the Mentawais – a popular surfer’s destination that is usually reachable only by a 12-hour boat ride.

Officials say hundreds of wooden and bamboo homes were washed away in more than 20 villages, displacing more than 20,000 people. Many were seeking shelter in makeshift emergency camps or with family and friends.

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