Posted: Oct 27, 2010 8:25 AM by Posted by Sharlee Barriere
MENTAWAI ISLANDS, Indonesia (AP) - Helicopters with emergency supplies finally landed Wednesday on the remote Indonesian islands slammed by a tsunami that killed at least 272 people, while elsewhere in the archipelago the toll from a volcanic eruption rose to 30, including the mountain's spiritual caretaker.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono cut short a state visit to Vietnam to rush home to deal with the dual disasters that struck Indonesia within 24 hours, straining the country's ability to respond.
The first aerial surveys of the region hit by the 10-foot (three-meter) tsunami revealed huge swaths of land underwater and the crumbled rubble of homes torn apart by the wave. One house lay tilted, resting on the edge of its red roof, with tires and slabs of concrete piled up on the surrounding sand.
Two days after an undersea earthquake spawned the killer wave, the casualty count was still rising as rescuers landed for the first time on the Mentawai island chain, which was closest to the epicenter and the worst hit. Bad weather had kept them away previously.
The first cargo plane loaded with 16 tons of tents, medicine, food and clothes arrived Wednesday afternoon, said disaster official Ade Edward. Four helicopters also landed in Sikakap, a town on North Pagai island, which will be the center of relief operations.
"Finally we have a break in the weather," Edwards said, adding that he hoped search and rescue operations would finally pick up pace. "We have a chance now to look for the missing from the sky and also to survey the extent of the damage."
About 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) to the east in central Java, disaster officials were scouring the slopes of Indonesia's most volatile volcano for survivors after it was rocked by an eruption that killed at least 30 people, including an old man who refused to abandon his ceremonial post as caretaker of the mountain's spirits.
Mount Merapi erupted at dusk Tuesday, sending up searing ash clouds and killing more than two dozen people.
Authorities warned the thousands who fled Merapi's wrath not to return during Wednesday's lull in volcanic activity, but some villagers were desperate to check on crops and possessions left behind. In several areas, everything - from the thinnest tree branches to chairs and tables inside homes - was caked with ash that looked like powdery snow.
Among the dead was Maridjan, an 83-year-old man who had been entrusted by a highly respected late king to watch over the volcano's spirits. Maridjan, who for years led ceremonies in which rice and flowers were thrown into the crater to appease the mountain, has angered officials in the past by refusing to leave during eruptions.
"We found his body," said Suseno, a rescue worker, amid reports that the old man was found kneeling face-down on the floor, a typical Islamic prayer position.
Authorities had accused him of setting a wrong example and stopping other villagers from leaving, but Maridjan always said he would only go if he got a sign from the long-dead king who appointed him.
The latest blast Tuesday night eased pressure that had been building up behind a lava dome perched on the crater. But experts warned the dome could still collapse, causing an avalanche of the blistering gas and debris trapped beneath it.
"It's a little calmer today," said Surono, the chief of Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation. "No hot clouds, no rumbling. But a lot of energy is pent up back there. There's no telling what's next."
Even as rescue officials contended with the volcano - one of 129 under watch in Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago - officials hundreds of miles (kilometers) away were trying to assess the damage from the earthquake and tsunami.
Both the quake and the volcanic eruption fell along Indonesia's portion of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a series of fault lines that are prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.
On Wednesday evening, disaster official Ade Edward nearly doubled the earthquake and tsunami casualty estimates to 272 dead with 412 still missing. He said the rescuers who landed Wednesday received new casualty reports from village chiefs.
With not enough people to dig graves, corpses littered beaches and roads, according to district chief Edison Salelo Baja. Fisherman were scouring waters in search of survivors.
Disaster officials were still trying to reach more than a dozen villages on the Mentawais - a popular surfer's destination that is usually reachable only by a 12-hour boat ride.
But they were preparing for the worst Wednesday, with hundreds of body bags being sent to the area, said Mujiharto, who heads the Health Ministry's crisis center.
The 7.7-magnitude quake that struck late Monday just 13 miles (20 kilometers) beneath the ocean floor was followed by at least 14 aftershocks, the largest measuring 6.2. The fault line on Sumatra island's coast is the same one that caused the 2004 quake and monster Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.
Officials say hundreds of wooden and bamboo homes were washed away on the island of Pagai, with water flooding crops and roads up to 600 yards (meters) inland. In Muntei Baru, a village on Silabu island, 80 percent of the houses were badly damaged.
Those and other islets hit were part of the Mentawai island chain, 175 miles (280 kilometers) from Sumatra.