Aid workers struggle to help Indonesia's 'terrified' tsunami survivors

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 29 October 2010 12:08 GMT

BANGKOK (AlertNet) Â? Efforts to deliver aid to the tsunami-affected Mentawai islands in western Indonesia are being hampered by the area's remoteness, rough seas, limited communications and a lack of local resources, aid workers say.

The government has put the death toll at 343 people with 338 missing after the tsunami hit on Monday. More than 23,740 families have been uprooted by the disaster, which struck a day before Indonesia's Mount Merapi volcano erupted.

"The access to the islands is difficult Â? we can only get there by sea transportation or chartered helicopter," said Aswi Reksaningtyas, head of communications at Indonesia Red Cross.

Five Red Cross search and rescue teams were only able to reach the affected areas two days after a 7.5 magnitude earthquake late on Monday triggered the tsunami. And even then, help has not reached all villages in Mentawai in Sumatra province, which comprises many small, scattered islands.

The Red Cross said one of its teams was held back by 3-metre-high waves on Thursday en route to the one of the islands and was forced to retreat.

SurfAid said it usually takes between 12 to 14 hours from Padang, the nearest major port in west Sumatra, to reach the Mentawai Islands, with a further six hours or so need to reach outlying islands.

"The seas have become choppy and it's raining as well. That started yesterday," SurfAid's head Andrew Judge told AlertNet. "The weather is bad again today."

The disaster has disrupted communications which have always been difficult in these remote islands at the best of times and few households have power.

The tsunami flattened villages in many coastal areas and there was widespread damage from waves that struck as far as 600 metres inland. Reuters images showed villages where only sand and debris were left and survivors sitting underneath tarpaulins.

Judge said large numbers of the population, even those that were not on the coast when the waves hit, would have been displaced from their homes and he was concerned they would not have supplies of food.

Food, water, shelter, medicine and hygiene kits are urgently needed, relief groups say.

TERRIFIED POPULATION

Red Cross' Reksaningtyas said there was not enough manpower to conduct search and rescue operations because not only were the locals exhausted but it was difficult getting reinforcements to the affected areas because of the problems of access.

Judge, whose Padang-based agency is one of the few aid agencies with a regular presence in the remote islands, said: "Most of the population are terrified. TheyÂ?ve experienced earthquakes before and I believe there is a cultural memory of tsunami."

Many survivors will remember the 2004 tsunami, which was caused by a more than 9-magnitude quake off Sumatra. The disaster killed more than 226,000 people across several countries.

SurfAid, which is assessing the damage and humanitarian need in the affected areas, visited a village on Friday morning where there had been a mass grave that was already dug and filled in. Judge said another village they visited had 200 people missing but found only 50 bodies.

On Thursday, the European Commission announced 1.5 million euros in aid to help the Mentawai tsunami survivors and the communities that fled the volcanic eruption in Java.

SurfAid's Judge is hoping more funds will follow.

"Basically we'll spend our annual programme budget on the Mentawai within six weeks. WeÂ?re counting on getting more funding through," he said.

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