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By AUBREY BELFORD
Published: October 27, 2010
In the worst hit region of the Mentawai Islands, health and rescue workers were still trying to reach some isolated areas nearly two days after a 7.7-magnitude quake sent a tsunami more than 10 feet high crashing into coastal villages.
Ade Edward, the emergency head of West Sumatra Province’s Disaster Management Agency said at least 272 people were killed and 412 were missing, The Associated Press reported. Thousands more have been displaced.
At the same time, aid workers on the island of Java, 750 miles to the east, scrambled to provide water, food and medicine to more than 13,000 people driven from their homes after Mount Merapi erupted, killing at least 25 people and spewing hot gas, ash and debris over the densely populated countryside.
Bad weather and powerful waves delayed efforts to reach many of the survivors in the Mentawais, an isolated, impoverished region west of Sumatra Island, Mr. Edward said.
“All along the coast, people have fled up into the hills because quakes are happening nearly on the hour,” Mr. Edward said. “These quakes are forcing us use to set up temporary shelters. It’s really tough work.”
Ships and helicopters had been sent to the islands, along with medical teams, shelters, medicines and two electricity generating barges, Mr. Edward said. Downed communications meant radio was the only way of communicating with many areas, he said.
“There’s a risk of fresh water shortages and the problems that come with that, like diarrhea,” he said. “We still haven’t sent water purification kits. We’re still in the emergency needs phase in these first three or four days.
“Most of the people killed were Mentawai locals out to sea or on shore fishing. People on land felt the quake and ran to higher ground. The people at sea had no idea there was a quake.”
The two disasters, which struck within 24 hours of each other, prompted President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to cut short a visit to Vietnam, where he was carrying out a bilateral visit and was due to attend a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Thursday. Mr. Yudhoyono was scheduled to fly to the West Sumatran city of Padang and then visit the Mentawais, a statement said.
In Java, much of the Wednesday was consumed with counting the cost of earlier eruptions that took place Tuesday night. Although the authorities had warned of the danger, many locals waited until the last minute to evacuate to safer ground.
Among those killed on the slopes of Mount Merapi was Penewu Suraksohargo, popularly known as Mbah Maridjan, an elderly man appointed as the spiritual guardian of the mountain by the late former sultan of the nearby city of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwono IX.
A journalist and a Red Cross volunteer were among 15 people killed along with Mr. Maridjan when superheated gases and hot ash shot down into his village, Kinahrejo, flattening homes and leaving behind the scorched bodies of humans and livestock scattered in the open and in ruined buildings, said Oka Hamid, a local Red Cross official.
“We couldn’t get the bodies out of there at night. We had to wait until the morning, since we couldn’t get our cars through the debris,” he said, adding that the village was “totally destroyed.”
Priyadi Kardono, a spokesman for the national Disaster Management Agency, said Mr. Maridjan, a national celebrity throughout Indonesia who was widely believed to have a supernatural connection with Mount Merapi, did not believe an eruption was imminent.
Much of Indonesia lies in the seismically active Pacific “ring of fire,” a series of fault lines stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia. Experts said that the earthquake was not big enough to have disturbed the volcano, and that the two events were most likely not related.
The tsunami, set off by a 7.7-magnitude undersea quake, slammed into the southern part of the remote Mentawai Islands, wreaking havoc in villages and, the authorities believe, sweeping scores out to sea. The islands are a popular destination for foreign surfers, particularly Australians. The surge reached as high as 10 feet and advanced as far as 2,000 feet inland, officials at the Health Ministry’s crisis center said.
The earthquake occurred along the same fault that produced a 9.1-magnitude quake on Dec. 26, 2004, spawning a tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people around the Indian Ocean. The hardest-hit area was in Aceh Province in northern Sumatra.
Monday’s quake was along a shorter section of the fault, about 500 miles southeast of the 2004 rupture, that last had a major quake in 1833, said Leonardo Seeber, a research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in Palisades, N.Y.
Henry Fountain contributed reporting from New York.