Indonesia struggles as tsunami, volcano tolls rise
Helicopters with emergency supplies finally landed on the remote Indonesian islands slammed by a tsunami that killed more than 300 people.
Mentawai islands: Helicopters with emergency supplies finally landed Wednesday on the remote Indonesian islands slammed by a tsunami that killed more than 300 people, while elsewhere in the archipelago the toll from a volcanic eruption rose to 30, including the mountain`s spiritual caretaker.
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 10-foot (three-meter) 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 epicenter and the worst hit. Bad weather had kept them away previously.
The first cargo plane loaded with 16 tons (14 metric 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 13 miles (20 kilometers) 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 epicenter 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 Wednesday.
About 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) to the east in central Java, meanwhile, disaster officials were scouring the slopes of Indonesia`s most volatile volcano for survivors after it was rocked by an eruption Tuesday that killed at least 30 people, including an 83-year-old man who had refused to abandon his ceremonial post as caretaker of the mountain`s spirits.
Seventeen others have been hospitalized, most with burns and respiratory problems.
Maridjan — entrusted by a highly respected late king to watch over the volcano — has for years led ceremonies in which rice and flowers were thrown into the crater to appease the mountain.
"We found his body," said Suseno, a rescue worker, amid reports that he was kneeling face-down on the floor, a typical Islamic prayer position, when he died.
More than 36,000 people have been evacuated from the mountain, according to the Indonesian Red Cross. Authorities warned those who fled Merapi`s wrath not to return during Wednesday`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 branches to chairs and tables inside homes — was caked with ash that looked like powdery snow.
The Tuesday night 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 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."
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.
But they were preparing for the worst Wednesday.
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.