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Indonesian Officials Expect Tsunami's Death Toll To Grow


Maybe you saw this video - people fleeing as massive waves crashed ashore on Indonesia Friday. Beachfront houses on Sulawesi island were swept away, and hundreds of people are dead from the tsunami - more than 800 people from the earthquake and tsunami combined. And we don't know how much farther that death toll is going to go. Most of the confirmed deaths are in the city of Palu, but there are casualties in many areas. And NPR's Julie McCarthy is covering this from the island of Sulawesi. Hi, Julie.


INSKEEP: What are you seeing and hearing?

MCCARTHY: Well, I am on the island, as you pointed out. But hours to the north of me, in the city of Palu, life has been totally upended. Body bags are lining the shores where the dead have washed up after this 18-foot tsunami. People are hungry. They're scrounging for food. They're looting stores and cars carrying in aid. The military is now out, but people are asking, you know, what took so long? World Vision says that people are, quote, "terrified" of another tsunami. It didn't just take lives. It took a chunk of the city's shoreline.

INSKEEP: Julie, can I describe to you a video that I saw? I'm sure it's one of many. But I'm thinking about the fact that when there's a tsunami, there's an earthquake. Then it causes a tsunami. Often you have some warning, but the people in this video didn't appear to have much warning, if any. The waves are approaching, and you look down, and you see people near the shore, standing around, not fleeing until the last second. You see cars racing by. It doesn't appear that people were ready for this at all.

MCCARTHY: Well, interestingly, there was an alert put out for the tsunami, but it was lifted quite soon after, and that's a mystery. That's being investigated. That could be scientifically defensible, but no one really knows that. Yes, that video is really gripping, and you wonder who took it, if they could have possibly survived.

I mean, Palu is nestled in a bay, where this tsunami came careening in at 250 miles an hour. And their buildings are cracked. They're collapsed. And the aid agencies say people are heading for the hills. They're building makeshift shelters. It's still not clear how many people have died. Many are unaccounted for. And another mass burial was held again today.

INSKEEP: What capacity does Indonesia have to get aid to that city of several hundred thousand, not to mention other areas affected by the quake or the tsunami?

MCCARTHY: Well, that - I mean, it's always a huge challenge here. And again, that has happened. It's happening. You see it. There's chaos before anything can come to any kind of order. In fact, the Palu airport was closed today because of a breakdown in law and order. One police major said 4,000 people stormed the airport there. They rushed a military transport filled with aid, and that shut down the flights for the day.

So chaos is emerging here - crowds standing on tankers, siphoning fuel. Power's been cut. There is a desperation setting in, but the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, has authorized international aid agencies into the quake area. Now their challenge will be to get there and to reach these devastated areas.

INSKEEP: NPR's Julie McCarthy is on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Julie, thanks very much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
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