Published December 29, 2004
MEULABOH, Indonesia – Three quarters of the west coast of Indonesia's Sumatra (search) island lies in ruin and some towns have been totally flattened by the massive quake and tsunamis, an official said, while bulldozers buried 1,000 bloated bodies in mass graves Wednesday to ward off disease.
Few details about the state of Sumatra's west coast, which was closest to Sunday's magnitude 9.0 quake, have emerged. Phone lines and roads are cut. Some officials got their first glimpse of the region Wednesday and the national death toll rose to 36,268 as some bodies there were counted.
News crews flew over town after town on the coast and saw villages covered in mud and sea water. Most homes had their roofs ripped off or were flatted by the forces of the disaster. There were few signs of life, except for a handful of villagers scavenging for food on the beach.
"The damage is truly devastating," said Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya, the military of commander of the island's Aceh province, who toured the coast by helicopter. "Seventy-five percent of the west coast and some places its 100 percent. These people are isolated and we will try and get them help."
The area around the town of Meulaboh — a fishing village of 40,000 residents — bore the brunt of the earthquake, which sent massive tidal waves thundering across the Indian Ocean that killed more than 67,000 people in about a dozen countries.
Purnomo Sidik, national disaster director at the Social Affairs Ministry, estimated that 10,000 people had died in Meulaboh. Only 3,778 of them have been included in the official toll because the rest haven't been properly counted. The tolls from many other towns are also yet to be added in.
Meanwhile, the threat of new deaths from food shortages and disease was rising.
"What worries us is the lack drinking water," said Dr. Georg Petersen, country representative for the World Health Organization (search). "That means that people might drink contaminated water and they can get sick from waterborne diseases like diarrhea."
In a field in Aceh's provincial capital, Banda Aceh (search), bulldozers shoved more than 1,000 unidentified bodies into mass graves. The corpses had been picked off the city's streets.
"We have to do this because of the smell and the health concern. We're a facing a major health hazard if we leave them lying around," Acting Aceh Governor Azwar Abu Bakar said.
Nearly 100 doctors began arriving in Banda Aceh on Wednesday and said they would be setting up four hospitals across the province, but complained of difficulties accessing many areas.
"We can only reach a quarter of the western coast," said Dr. Doti Indrasanto. "The military tried to push through with heavy machinery but they couldn't. We've got piles of food and medicine and we can't get it through to these places."
Aid workers said fuel and vehicles were in short supply and roads were nearly impassible. The logistical nightmare forced relief supplies to bank up at an airport in the region.
Military planes tossed hundreds of food packets to survivors on the ground.
Government workers were scrambling to get services working again across much of the island. Electricity and cellular phone service had returned in some parts of Banda Aceh.
Aceh has been wracked by a separatist war for the past 26 years. Jakarta had banned foreign journalists and international aid agency representatives from visiting the region, but on Monday it lifted the ban and said it would welcome aid.