Indonesia ramped up aid operations yesterday for victims of last week’s devastating tsunami as the toll climbed despite the discovery of 135 traumatized villagers who were feared dead.
Monsoons and high seas have plagued efforts to reach disaster-struck coastal villages since they were crushed by the 3m wall of water late on Monday night, after an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra.
However, aid chiefs said the weather had cleared early yesterday and more helicopters were on the way to ferry aid to isolated communities accessible only by sea or air.
“The weather is better today, there’s no rain. So we hope we will be able to send the supplies quickly. We’re also expecting two more helicopters to arrive to air-drop relief supplies to remote areas,” relief official Joskamatir said.
As rescuers slowly fanned out across the worst-hit islands of North and South Pagai, the death count rose with the discovery of ever more bodies strewn on beaches or wedged under the debris.
The official toll climbed to 450, with another 96 missing.
“We’re still looking for them ... there’s a high likelihood they are dead, mostly buried in sand,” Joskamatir said of those still unaccounted for.
Many of the dead are believed to have been dragged out to sea with the receding waters or buried beneath the sand.
However, in a rare piece of good news, 135 people were found alive on Saturday, hiding on high ground and too afraid of another wave to return to their shattered villages.
Theopilus, 42, a farmer on the worst-hit island of South Pagai, said he had been surviving on wild taro root and anything else he could scavenge.
“We’re in dire need of more food, tents and blankets. I feel really cold at night as it rains all the time,” he said.
Emergency services in Indonesia are being further stretched by the continued eruption of Mount Merapi in central Java, where some 50,000 people have been evacuated to temporary shelters.
Terrified residents fled in panic when the archipelago’s most active volcano convulsed again yesterday around 3pm, threatening a repeat of explosions on Tuesday that claimed at least 36 lives.
No one was killed in the latest eruption, but hospital staff reported that two people died in the chaotic rush to escape after an eruption early on Saturday, including a woman who was hit by a truck.
Volcanic ash rained down on the Central Java provincial capital of Yogyakarta 26km away from the crater on Saturday, shutting the airport for over an hour.
Government volcanologist Subandrio said more eruptions were likely and warned evacuees not to tempt fate by going home too soon.
“We will even have to evaluate whether we need to widen the exclusion zone because we should not downplay the threat — Mount Merapi is extremely dangerous,” Subandrio said.
Many displaced people returned to the slopes of 2,914m Merapi, a sacred landmark in Javanese tradition whose name means “Mountain of Fire,” to tend to their livestock during the day.
Extra police and troops were posted at checkpoints on roads leading into the 10km exclusion zone, and officials reported new arrivals at the shelters following Saturday’s eruption.
“People have voluntarily chosen to stay further away as they were traumatized and wanted to avoid the danger zone,” said Suranto, a village administrator.
Australia and the US have pledged aid worth a total of US$3 million, while the European -Commission released 1.5 million euros (US$2 million) for victims of both disasters.