Dazed Asian countries reeled from the full force of nature’s fury on Thursday with thousands feared dead in a freak onslaught of devastating earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons.
Rescuers picked through rubble after a huge quake struck Indonesia and a towering tsunami deluged the Samoan islands, while millions of flood-hit storm survivors in South-East Asia braced for a new super-typhoon.
Fresh panic hit the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where another powerful quake hit the day after Wednesday’s 7,6-magnitude disaster, sending traumatised residents fleeing their homes.
Officials said 529 were confirmed dead on Sumatra. But as rescue workers dug with their bare hands in pouring rain to reach those trapped alive in collapsed buildings, the number was expected to soar.
“Our prediction is that thousands have died,” Health Ministry crisis centre head Rustam Pakaya said.
The first flights laden with aid and body bags began arriving in the devastated coastal city of Padang, home to nearly a million people, where Wednesday’s quake sparked fires and caused buildings to crumble.
“I’ve been waiting here since yesterday [Wednesday]. I haven’t been home yet and keep praying to God my daughter is alive,” 49-year-old mother Andriana said as police searched a collapsed school where dozens of children were believed trapped.
It was the second quake in hours on the Pacific Ocean’s volatile “Ring of Fire”, coming after the massive 8,0-magnitude tremor that spawned a deadly tsunami in the Samoan islands.
At least 148 people died and scores more missing after waves of up to 7,5m obliterated island villages, in the South Pacific archipelago’s worst quake in nearly a century.
Survivors saw truckloads of bodies in the once-idyllic holiday destination, in a grim echo of Asia’s Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Four Australians, two Koreans, a New Zealander and a British toddler were among the dead.
“It’s not paradise any more — it’s hell on earth,” one survivor told Australia’s Sky News.
Pristine white beaches that once wooed bathers were strewn with the mangled wreckage of buildings, cars, luggage and poignant personal items.
Aid planes arrived in Samoa from Australia and New Zealand, presenting rescuers with horrifying scenes.
“For Samoa this is just real devastation, I have never seen anything like this before,” said aid worker Tony Hill.
Meanwhile, South-East Asia faced a new menace from the skies as the death toll from floods and landslides caused by Typhoon Ketsana climbed on Thursday to 383 in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
The latest threat, Typhoon Parma, churned towards the Philippines packing gusts of up to 185 km/h and was expected to become a super-typhoon before it makes landfall on Saturday.
“We are dealing with a very strong typhoon, so we should be at the highest level of preparedness,” state weather bureau spokesperson Nathaniel Cruz said as nearly 700 000 people remained in government-run shelters.
Authorities said they would forcibly evacuate people if necessary from Parma’s path, which is set to hit areas still reeling from Ketsana. The previous typhoon submerged about 80% of the capital, Manila.
Vietnam on Thursday intensified efforts to get food and water to stranded victims but many complained that help had been slow to be arrive. It reported 92 dead and said about 400 000 people have fled their homes.
In Cambodia, where 14 died, people sifted through the wreckage of smashed wooden houses, with thousands left homeless. The storm also flooded swathes of a province that is home to the famed Angkor Wat temples.
Aid groups said 10 people were missing in Laos while neighbouring Thailand evacuated 3 000 flood-hit people. — AFP