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INDONESIA: DeathToll Crosses 500 Despite Tsunami Precautions

Kafil Yamin

BANDUNG, Java, Jul 19 2006 (IPS) - As the death toll in the earthquake and tsunami that struck Java island’s southern coast on Monday crossed the 500 mark, officials admitted to having been caught by surprise, despite the elaborate precautions taken after earthquake-triggered monster waves smashed into Aceh province in northern Sumatra in December 2004.

Indonesia’s social ministry, estimated that at least 530 people have died while 240 people were reported missing and hundreds more injured. In the worst-hit Pangandaran beach, hotels, restaurants, houses and public facilities were destroyed.

Officials said, on Wednesday, that more casualties were expected as rescue teams continued to search for survivors and dead bodies under the rubble of destroyed buildings.

Monday’s tremor, measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale, struck Jakarta and parts of West Java province at about 3:20 pm (0820 GMT), said Jajad, an official at Jakarta’s National Meteorology and Geophysics Agency. The quake then created five-metre high waves that crashed into the southwest coast, sending thousands of local residents scrambling for higher ground.

Local officials said 42,000 people living along Pangandaran beach have taken refuge in higher places while 52,000 residents of Cilacap, central Java have fled their homes and are now located in refugees camps in the interior of the island.

Soon after the initial temblor, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC), located in Hawaii, had warned Indonesia of a possible tsunami wave. But this country, which received detection equipment and technical assistance after the Aceh disaster, was unable to use either.

An official of the Meteorology and Geophysics department, Surono (one name), said the tsunami detector was non-functional when the killer waves struck. ”The quake’s epicenter was in the Indian Ocean, about 266 km off Bandung, the provincial capital of West Java, or about 366 km south of Jakarta,” he explained.

Indonesia’s minister for science and technology Kusmayanto Kadiman said the government did not react to the PTWC alert so as to avoid creating panic and alarm. ”Had the tsunami not occurred, what would have happened?” he asked while speaking to reporters in Jakarta.

Kadiman said, however, that plans for installing a nationwide warning system would now be speeded up.

AOne reason for the inadequate response was the strong belief among scientists that Java’s southern coast was a tsunami-free region. ”Our predictions were wrong,” Surono said.

The quake was also felt in Jakarta and several cities in West Java, but there were no reports of damage inland. It was the latest in a series of powerful earthquakes that have rocked Indonesia in recent weeks.

On Cilacap beach in Central Java, where 107 people are reported dead, the tsunami destroyed the area’s largest power plant, cutting off electricity supply to the whole province.

Hundreds of people saved themselves by rushing towards nearby hills, fearing a repeat of the 2004 tsunami that killed 177,000 people in Aceh. ”We were in total panic and ran to the hills. Almost an entire village here was inundated by water,” Maswan, a resident of Pangandaran, told the RCTI TV channel.

Survivors in Pangandaran said they saw the tidal wave reach 5 metres high sweeping into the coast. Hundreds of fishing boats capsized and were destroyed.

The quake also destroyed 440 fishing boats and hundreds of shops along the Logending Beach, Kebumen regency, Central Java. Most of the boats were anchored around a local fish auction site, Antara news agency reported.

On May 27, a strong earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale rocked Central Java’s cultural city of Yogyakarta and nearby areas, killing around 6,000 people and injuring thousands of others. Yogyakarta and its surrounding villages were just beginning reconstruction work when the tsunami struck.

Indonesia is located along the Pacific volcanic belt known as the ‘Ring of Fire,’ where earthquakes and volcanoes are common.

On Dec. 26, 2004, a 9.1 earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra triggered a massive tsunami that slammed into nine countries around the Indian Ocean and destroyed half of Aceh’s capital, Banda Aceh, and several coastal villages

Indonesia’s military has deployed two thousand personnel on rescue missions on the main sites. “They will work on evacuation, medical treatment and distribution of relief,” said Marshal Mohammad Suparto, chief of the Indonesia Military Information Centre..

Monday’s tsunami has added to the burden of President Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is already busy supervising reconstruction in Aceh and restoration work in Yogyakarta, home to major world heritage monuments.

Yudhoyono, whose 21-month-old presidency has been remarkable for several massive natural disasters, asked local heads of administrations in Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi and Papua to be cautious and well-prepared for further tsunamis.

“We have been going through a series of miserable disasters. I hope we learned a lot of lessons from this,” the President said.

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