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Scores feared dead in Indonesian landslides after heavy rain

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Heavy rains in western Indonesia have triggered landslides across the region that have killed dozens of people. Meanwhile, other areas were devastated by major flooding, with water reaching two metres high in some locations.

Search and rescue chief Eko Prayitno in Java told reporters that police, soldiers and volounteers were working together to attempt to reach survivors, some digging with their hands or traditional tools. Heavy equipment is available and efforts are underway to get it into place, he said, but blocked roads are making such efforts difficult.

Prayitno also said that a single landslide in the Karanganyar region buried 61 people who were attending a dinner to celebrate a successful clean up of a house affected by another landslide, which had caused no injuries. “They were having dinner together when they were hit by another landslide… At least 61 people were buried.” Landslides affected the region over a four hour period from 01:00 a.m. to 05:00 a.m. local time. Meanwhile, seventeen people are feared dead in the neighbouring district of Wonogiri, which has also been hit by landslides after twelve hours of nonstop torrential rain.

Andi Mallarangeng, spokesperson for president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, told reporters “The president sends his deep condolence, and has ordered Home Minister [Mardiono] to inspect the scene [in Karanganyar] and monitor the emergency responses.”

Many fleeing residents have attempted to salvage their possessions, with some using tyres to float television sets and refrigerators to dry ground. Another single massive slide in Tawangmangu, a mountainous resort, buried 37. Metro TV News was told by an eyewitness, identified only as Karsidi, that “Those people were gathering for a tea break during communal works after the rains, and suddenly the land collapsed onto them.”

The affected regions spread across Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi. The population distribution in Indonesia has worsened the situation, with many people living on river flood plains to utilise the fertile soil and many more living in inaccessible mountain regions. The total death toll is estimated at up to 81 people, and eyewitnesses and local media report that thousands of homes are affected.

Landslides are common in Indonesia, where large-scale rainfall is a regular occurrence. This is often exacerbated by deforestation. However, Heru, head of the local disaster coordinator agency in Karang Anyar, commented that “The forest in the area is thick,” and consequently he did not believe deforestation was a causal factor. The region he is responsible for has recorded 36 deaths and 30 more buried in thick mud near the banks of the Bengawan Solo river. Meanwhile Julianto, another provincial government official, said “The landslides took us by surprise. This is the first time in the last 25 years anything of this scale occurred here in Central Java.”

Julianto also commented that thousands of people displaced from their homes by flooding and landslides have been forced into temporary accommodation in buildings and tents provided by emergency response teams.

Today’s disasters coincide with the third anniversary of the Asian tsunami, which killed an estimated 230,000 people. A tsunami drill on Java was unaffected as the seasonal poor weather did not have an adverse affect on the area of the drill.

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