A woman searches for her belongings in a collapsed house in Taparaboat village in the Mentawai islands, West Sumatra, on October 28, 2010. AFP
NORTH PAGAI, Indonesia (AFP) – Indonesia battled to deliver aid to remote islands where a tsunami has killed over 400 people, as bodies lay strewn on beaches and buried in debris days after the wave hit.
Disaster response officials believe the final death toll from the huge wave that hit the Mentawai island chain off the west coast of Sumatra Monday could pass 600, with many of the victims sucked out to sea as the tsunami receded.
Almost 13,000 people are living in makeshift camps on the islands after their homes were wiped out in the wave, which was triggered by a powerful 7.7 magnitude earthquake.
Elsewhere in the disaster-prone archipelago, the nation’s most active volcano, Mount Merapi, was spewing lava and ash, threatening residents who may have returned to their homes after an eruption on Tuesday killed 34 people.
“It shot heat clouds at 6:10 am as far as 3.5 kilometres (over two miles) down its southeastern slopes and followed this with ash rain,” volcanologist Heru Suparwoko told AFP.
The clouds were “definitely dangerous” for people who had refused to obey orders to evacuate the danger zone on the island of Java or who had returned to tend to their livestock and property, he added.
Some 50,000 people have fled to temporary shelters but many are returning to their fields on the volcano during the day, despite the threat of another deadly eruption.
On the Mentawais, a legendary destination for foreign surfers but an otherwise poor and neglected part of Indonesia, bodies were being found buried on beaches and even stuck in trees.
The latest official death toll stood at 408, with 303 still listed as missing. Officials said as many as 200 of the missing were not expected to be found alive.
“When we flew over the area yesterday (Wednesday) we saw many bodies. Heads and legs were sticking out of the sand, some of them were in the trees,” disaster official Ade Edward said Thursday.
Indonesia initially refused offers of foreign aid but Australia announced that Jakarta had accepted about one million US dollars worth of assistance for both disasters.
The European Commission released 1.5 million euros (two million dollars) in aid and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the United Nations stood ready to assist in any way.
“Indonesia is currently addressing a multitude of emergencies, whose cumulative impact is putting local capacity under severe strain,” European aid chief Kristalina Georgieva said.
The United States and several Asian countries have also offered help.
Bad weather has hampered efforts to ferry aid such as tents, medicine, food and water to the islands by boat from the nearest port of Padang, which is more than half a day away even in the best conditions.
Troops and warships have been dispatched to the region but more helicopters and boats are needed to ferry aid to the most isolated communities, some of which lack roads and wireless communications.
“Our staff have been waiting in Padang since Monday night to reach the remote area. They are now still in Padang,” World Vision emergency response director Jimmy Nadapdap said.
Dave Jenkins of independent health agency Surfaid International, which is based in the Mentawais, said: “Bad weather is forecast and a severely challenging situation has been made a lot worse.”
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited the area Thursday and told survivors the government was doing everything it could to help them.
Officials have batted away questions about why an expensive warning system — established after the 2004 Asian tsunami killed almost 170,000 people on Sumatra and nearby islands — failed to alert people on the Mentawais.
Survivors said the only warning they received was the “roaring” sound of the wave as it sped towards them shortly before 10:00 pm, although an official tsunami alert had been issued in Jakarta.
An official responsible for the warnings blamed local authorities on the Mentawais for failing to pass on the alert, telling reporters: “We don’t feel there was any mistake.”
The Indonesian archipelago is studded with scores of active volcanoes and stretches from the Pacific to the Indian oceans, spanning several tectonic plates meeting on a so-called “ring of fire”.
According to the US Geological Survey, Monday’s earthquake was “the latest in a sequence of large ruptures along the Sunda megathrust” including the 2004 quake.