People survey damage outside the shopping mall following earthquakes and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. Rescuers try to reach trapped victims in collapsed buildings after hundreds of people are confirmed dead in a tsunami that hit two central Indonesian cities, sweeping away buildings with massive waves. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)
People survey the damage in Palu, central Sulawesi, on Sunday following the earthquakes and tsunami © AP

More than 800 people are dead after a tsunami up to six metres in height hit the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, sweeping away roads, buildings and communications facilities. 

The death toll doubled in the space of 24 hours to 821 on Sunday, according to Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesperson of Indonesia’s disaster management agency. He expects the number to rise again as authorities have yet to reach Donggala, a fishing town of 300,000 closer to the epicentre of the massive earthquakes that triggered the tidal wave.

Numbers for casualties and injured individuals, now at 450, only account for the hard-hit city of Palu, where a beach festival was under way when the tsunami hit. Rescuers are now searching for people under the rubble of crumbled buildings.

Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla told reporters the toll could rise into the thousands.

“Many bodies were found along the shoreline because of the tsunami, but the numbers are still unknown,” Mr Sutopo told Reuters on Saturday. Thousands of houses, hospitals, shopping malls and hotels had collapsed, he said. A bridge was washed away and the main highway to Palu was cut off due to a landslide. 

Jan Gelfand, of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent said the organisation was racing to help survivors. “We’re now getting limited communications about the destruction in Palu city, but we have heard nothing from Donggala and this is extremely worrying. There are more than 300,000 people living there. This is already a tragedy, but it could get much worse,” he said.

The tsunami followed two violent earthquakes of magnitude 6.1 and 7.5 and struck after the disaster agency had lifted a tsunami alert. Aftershocks continued on Saturday.

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Providing relief aid is proving arduous. Indonesia’s national police and armed forces, including the air force, have been deployed to bring aid to the affected areas, but Palu’s runway has been damaged. The city’s hospital collapsed following the earthquake. 

Mr Sutopo posted on Twitter a smartphone video showing the forceful wave tearing through houses, cars and roads, leaving the coast completely submerged and people screaming in fear. He also posted an image of a large, collapsed bridge in Palu.

The disaster agency on Friday said the first earthquake had caused one casualty and injured more than 10 people.

Indonesian president Joko Widodo on Saturday said he had instructed the security minister to co-ordinate the government’s response to the disaster with armed forces and the disaster agency. 

This is the second time Indonesia has been hit by earthquakes in less than two months. In early August, a string of shocks hit the island of Lombok over the course of a week, causing more than 200 casualties and leaving more than 150,000 people homeless.

Indonesia is prone to natural disasters, with an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands dotted along a strip known as the “Ring of Fire” for its high number of active volcanoes. 

In December 2004, an earthquake and tsunami centred off the coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra killed 230,000 people in more than 10 countries. A World Bank report published a decade later said Indonesia needed to improve its risk management system, which lacked sufficient investment in disaster prevention; experienced institutions at the national and sub-national level; and a strong framework for risk financing.

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