Indonesia calls off rescue efforts in quake-hit city

Indonesia called off the search for survivors in the quake-hit city of Padang on Monday as officials sought to contain the risk of disease caused by thousands of trapped bodies.

Local officials and foreign specialists who rushed to Indonesia’s Sumatra island after last Wednesday’s devastating 7,6-magnitude earthquake said the aid effort had switched to relief and rebuilding.

The United Nations has said that at least 1 100 people were killed in the disaster, but estimates of the final toll range up to 5 000.

“The effort to find survivors in Padang was stopped last night but they are still going on outside Padang,” Indonesian disaster management agency spokesperson Priyadi Kardono said.

Swiss Rescue spokesperson Michele Mercier said the group’s 115-strong team was packing up and preparing to go home.

“Nobody from the teams we know found a survivor, unfortunately. We recovered six bodies,” she said.

Foreign aid and emergency teams continued to pour into Padang, bringing tonnes of medical supplies, drinking water and food for the tens of thousands of people made homeless by the quake.

Rubble and ruins in the city of one million people on Sumatra’s west coast was being scoured for hundreds of bodies believed to be interred in the wreckage.

Two heavy excavators were trying to reach scores of bodies believed buried under the wreckage of the landmark Ambacang Hotel, which resembled a stack of pancakes. One body was pulled from the hotel’s rubble early in the morning.

“We’re still looking for the exact location where there are many bodies trapped,” senior Indonesian rescue worker Retno Budiharjo said.

Health officials said they were racing against time to prevent outbreaks of disease caused by decomposing bodies and a lack of clean water.

“There is a concern that dirty water supplies can spread skin disease and other kinds of diseases.
Flies on dead bodies can also spread bacteria to people,” Health Ministry crisis centre head Rustam Pakaya said.

The government said it had set aside 6-trillion rupiah ($624-million) for reconstruction in Padang, where most buildings in the city centre have been damaged or completely destroyed, including hospitals and schools.

Long path to recovery
There were signs on Monday that the city was taking its first tentative steps on the long path to recovery. Restaurants were reopening and teachers said they were trying to resume classes.

“I have been ordered by the governor to open the school again today, but only 60 students came out of 800,” Padang teacher Karmila Suryani said.

Outside the city, aid was trickling into isolated hillside villages that were flattened in the quake or destroyed by giant landslides.

But many survivors in rural areas said they had received no aid at all and expressed anger at the authorities.

“This is a test from God and we accept it, but we’re angry and sad that help hasn’t come,” said 50-year-old farmer’s wife Simur, from the razed village of Koto Mambang.

“In our culture it’s embarrassing to beg by the roadside but what choice do we have? We need to feed our children.”

Teams from Japan, Germany, Russia and Singapore have set up mobile health clinics outside Padang with dozens of doctors and nurses treating patients.

Helicopters were seen ferrying aid to remote communities after heavy rain hampered flights in the morning.

“Because of unsanitary conditions and lack of clean water or disinfectant, even minor injuries sustained in a disaster can become life-threatening without medical attention,” said World Vision, a Christian relief organisation.

The quake struck off Sumatra’s west coast near Padang, which lies on part of the so-called “Ring of Fire” system of faultlines and volcanoes that make Indonesia one of the most quake-prone countries in the world.—Sapa-AFP

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