PADANG, Indonesia (Reuters) - Health workers doused the Indonesian city of Padang with disinfectant to ward off disease outbreaks and helicopters dropped aid to survivors six days after a devastating earthquake.
The rescue mission in the port city of 900,000, and in surrounding hills ravaged by landslides, has been all but abandoned for a relief effort to help thousands of homeless.
Indonesia’s official toll from the quake is 704 dead and 295 missing, but the health minister said it could reach 3,000.
There was a brief moment of hope when workers reportedly heard a woman crying for help under the rubble of the collapsed Dutch-colonial era Ambacang hotel. An Indonesian commander at the site later said an Australian rescue team had turned up nothing and work to demolish the former city landmark resumed.
Aid is pouring in, but the scale of the disaster, heavy rains and road damage mean long delays before it reaches survivors.
“I have seen reports on TV of boxes piling up at the airport and not making it to victims,” said Gamawan Fauzi, the governor of West Sumatra. “That’s not fair. Those are the secondary items, not the priority items like food and water.”
Since the quake, villagers have told Reuters correspondents in a number of areas little if any aid had arrived.
“It is difficult to get water because it is being contaminated,” said Agus, a resident in the Padang Alai area in the hills outside Padang. “There is no electricity and it is difficult for us to get food and medicine.”
Metro TV showed survivors scrabbling for food aid boxes dropped by helicopters and Red Cross helicopters were also bringing medical personnel to some remote areas.
The aerial view from onboard a Red Cross helicopter revealed utter devastation and huge scars of brown where landslides had torn away lush green hills and paddy fields.
“The immediate needs are to get food to people who are still cut off, still isolated in settlements up in the hills,” said Patrick Fuller, a spokesman for the Red Cross, adding that some areas were only reachable by foot or helicopter.
Indonesia’s disaster agency has said it has nine helicopters, while Fuller said that U.S. Navy had offered more.
Governor Fauzi denied aid was falling into the wrong hands.
“The receipt of aid is signed off by the head of each sub-district. So we know what they have received. I think the risk of corruption is small, but if anyone is caught doing that they must punished,” Fauzi said.
Rotting bodies were a big hazard and health experts said they were monitoring any outbreak of cholera and tetanus.
“There are corpses, there are flies, water is scarce. It all makes infection easy,” said Rustam Pakaya, head of the crisis center at the health ministry. “Therefore, we are spraying disinfectants in Padang city. We will also do fogging for mosquitoes.”
Half-collapsed buildings in Padang were being knocked down by heavy machinery on Tuesday, despite fears many bodies may still be under the rubble.
The governor said that the Indonesian Council of Ulama planned to issue an Islamic edit so that bodies under huge landslides in areas outside Padang could be left undisturbed in mass graves.
But in the landslide-devastated village of Kepala Koto, a Reuters photographer witnessed four locals digging up the bodies of a man, a woman and a boy.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono criticized local officials on Monday for not focusing enough on emergency needs, but he also called for an Aceh-style reconstruction.
“In my view, I think we could implement what has been done in Aceh, Nias and Yogykarta,” he said before a cabinet meeting.
The rebuilding of Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra after the 2004 tsunami has largely been held up as success, while massive rehabilitation also took place on Nias island in Sumatra, and in the city of Yogyakarta in Java after ruinous quakes.
Additional reporting by Dylan Martinez, Royston Chan and Thin Lei Win in PADANG PATAMUAN, and by Olivia Rondonuw and Muklis Ali in JAKARTA; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Nick Macfie