Aid arrives as Indonesia quake toll around 1,000

Fri Oct 2, 2009 2:05pm EDT

By Sunanda Creagh

PADANG, Indonesia (Reuters) – Aid for thousands of survivors of an earthquake in Indonesia trickled in on Friday and international rescue teams set to work, but efforts were hampered by power blackouts and a shortage of heavy equipment.

The United Nations said more than 1,000 had been killed in and around Padang, a port city of 900,000 that sits atop one of the world’s most active seismic fault lines along the Pacific “Ring of Fire.” Thousands more were feared to be still trapped.

Overstretched rescuers dug through the rubble of schools and other buildings, occasionally locating survivors but mostly retrieving bodies. As darkness fell, floodlights were rigged up above shattered buildings so work could go on through the night.

“So far victims have received aid but we need to intensify it,” said Indonesian Red Cross chief Marie Muhammad. “There are still many roads cut off because of landslides.”

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono toured the disaster area and said $10 million in relief would be put to work fast.

“The 100 billion rupiah fund must flow, no more red tape. This is an emergency, the race is important,” Yudhoyono said.

Governments in Taiwan and the Philippines have come in for fierce criticism in recent weeks for a perceived slow response to disasters, but Jakarta-based political analyst Kevin O’Rourke said Yudhoyono was unlikely to suffer a similar backlash.

“Yudhoyono is the type of politician who tends to convey the type of image that people, I think, seek when these disasters happen,” said O’Rourke of the ex-general with a common touch.

A giant excavator donated by a cement company tore through piles of twisted iron and rubble, the wreckage of a three-storey college in Padang. Dozens of students were attending after-school lessons there when the quake struck on Wednesday with a force felt in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

“We have pulled out 38 children since the quake. Some of them, on the first day, were still alive, but the last few have all been dead,” said rescue team leader Suria who, like many Indonesians, uses just one name.

The U.N. humanitarian chief, John Holmes, told a news conference at U.N. Headquarters in New York that some 1,100 people had been killed in the 7.6 magnitude quake.

STILL ALIVE

On Friday rescuers pulled out a 21-year-old student named Sari alive from the wreckage of a language school, to the applause of a crowd that had gathered to watch.

But the family of Suci, who was lying next to Sari and pinned under concrete, were still waiting anxiously for her to be freed.

“I hope she can get out today. I went into the tunnel and I could hear her voice. I could see her hand,” said her husband.

Metro TV said at least eight survivors were detected inside the ruined Dutch-colonial era Ambacang Hotel. Kyodo news agency reported a Japanese rescue team with sniffer dogs was leading the effort to free them.

Indonesia’s health minister said the destruction did not appear to be as extensive as was first feared, but the toll of those killed could still number in the low thousands.

“I predict the number will not reach 4,000,” Siti Fadillah Supari was quoted as saying by news website detik.com.

Indonesia’s disaster management agency said the number of dead and missing confirmed so far was 806.

The three provinces affected by Wednesday’s disaster and a second quake inland on Thursday are major producers of rubber, palm oil, coal and other commodities, although together they accounted for less than 3 percent of Indonesia’s overall GDP, according to a report by Bank Danamon in Jakarta.

Indonesia’s central bank said it was ready to inject cash into banks hit by the quake and that borrowers would be able to get loans restructured to help them cope with the crisis.

Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, has been struggling with a shortage of clean water and electricity.

In Pariaman, a small city nearer the quake’s epicenter, conditions appeared worse, with thousands of houses reported to have collapsed. Conditions in more remote areas in the mountainous hinterland were unknown.

TV footage from the Pariaman area showed a whole hillside had collapsed, leaving just barren red earth and the odd fallen tree where several villages had been.

Patients evacuated from Padang’s badly damaged main hospital were being cared for in tents. Corpses placed in yellow body bags were lined up at an open-air morgue.

Yunas Lubis stood weeping at the morgue on Friday, holding his baby granddaughter, mourning his dead son-in-law.

“My daughter’s husband was just pulled out of a building this morning. He was trapped there for two days,” he said. “Why did it take so long to get him out? It was too late.”

International aid pledges poured in and specialist rescue teams from countries including Australia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea had arrived or were en route.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a child, also offered assistance. “Indonesia is an extraordinary country that’s known extraordinary hardship with natural disasters,” he said.

[original]

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