October 1, 2018 / 12:00 AM / 19 days ago

Indonesia scrambles to help quake-hit island as death toll tops 800

* Authorities say 832 confirmed killed in Sulawesi disaster

* Death toll could be thousands - Vice President Kalla

* Hundreds feared buried in collapsed buildings, landslides

* President Widodo calls for patience

* People search for food, some reports of looting

PALU, Indonesia, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Indonesian authorities scrambled to get food, aid and equipment into quake-hit Sulawesi island on Monday as the death toll from the disaster soared to 832 and looked certain to rise as rescuers struggled to reach devastated outlying communities.

Dozens of people were reported to be trapped in the rubble of several hotels and a mall in the city of Palu, which was hit by waves as high as six metres (20 feet) following the 7.5 magnitude earthquake on Friday.

Hundreds more were feared buried in landslides that engulfed villages in surrounding areas.

“Grieve for the people of Central Sulawesi, we all grieve together,” President Joko Widodo said on Twitter late on Sunday.

Most of the confirmed deaths were in Palu itself and authorities were bracing for the toll to climb as connections with outlying areas are restored.

Of particular concern is Donggala, a region of 300,000 people north of Palu and close to the epicentre of the quake, and two other districts, which have been cut off from communications since Friday.

“We haven’t received reports from the three other areas. Communication is still down, power is still out. We don’t know for sure what is the impact,” Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, told a news conference.

Along with Palu, 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of Jakarta, these districts have a combined population of about 1.4 million.

PLEDGE TO REBUILD

Five foreigners - three French, one South Korean and one Malaysian - were among the missing, Nugroho said.

Authorities were preparing a mass grave in Palu to bury the dead as soon as possible after they were identified to prevent the spread of disease, he said on Twitter on Monday.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla said the death toll could rise into the thousands.

President Widodo visited a housing complex, flattened when the quake liquefied the soil it stood on, on Sunday and called for patience.

“I know there are many problems that need to be solved in a short time, including communications,” he said.

The ruins would be rebuilt, Widodo said, as aftershocks continued to rattle the region.

Footage of the ruined city showed a crumpled mess of houses, cars and trees mashed together by the quake, with rooftops and roads split and left at all angles.

“There are estimated to be many victims in this area. Evacuation is difficult because many collapsed houses are buried in soil,” Nugroho said on Sunday evening.

Internal Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo, asked on social media about reports of looting, said he had ordered authorities to help people get food and drink and businesses would be compensated. One video posted on YouTube showed people grabbing boxes of supplies from a truck.

Television pictures showed scores of residents shouting “we’re hungry, we need food” as soldiers distributed rations from a truck in one neighbourhood, while footage from elsewhere showed people making off with clothes and other items from a wrecked mall.

State logistics agency chief Budi Waseso said it was preparing to send hundreds of tonnes of government rice stocks to areas in Central Sulawesi affected by the disaster.

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said the government had allocated 560 billion rupiah ($37.58 million) for disaster recovery, media reported.

QUESTIONS ABOUT WARNINGS

Indonesia, which sits on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, is all too familiar with deadly earthquakes and tsunamis. In 2004, a quake off Sumatra island triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Questions are sure to be asked why warning systems set up after that disaster appear to have failed on Friday. Nugroho, bemoaning a fall in funding, said none of Indonesia’s tsunami buoys, one type of instrument used to detect the waves, had been operating since 2012.

The meteorological and geophysics agency BMKG issued a tsunami warning after the quake but lifted it 34 minutes later, drawing criticism it had been too hasty. However, officials estimated the waves had hit while the warning was in force.

Neighbours including Australia, Thailand and China offered help and Pope Francis, speaking to thousands in St. Peter’s Square, said he was praying for the victims.

The European Union announced 1.5 million euros ($1.74 million) in immediate aid.

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population but also significant pockets of Christians, including on Sulawesi, which is one of the archipelago nation’s five main islands.

($1 = 0.8615 euros)

Reporting by Reuters stringer in PALU, Fergus Jensen, Fanny Potkin, Tabita Diela, Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Gayatri Suroyo and Fransiska Nangoy in JAKARTA, Kanupriya Kapoor in MAMUJU, Steve Scherer in ROME, Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in BANGKOK Writing by Robert Birsel Editing by Lincoln Feast

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