Race for survivors as tsunami death toll soars

Amongst the rubble: Around 17,000 people have been evacuated from Palu. © Getty

Could the disaster in Indonesia have been prevented? On Friday, a devastating tsunami hit the city of Palu just as an official tsunami warning was called off. The death toll is still climbing.

In Indonesia on Friday, hundreds had gathered in the city of Palu for a beach festival. At around 6pm local time, the country was rocked by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake.

A tsunami warning was issued by Indonesia’s geophysics agency, but it was called off around half an hour later — just as six-metre high waves were devastating Palu. “People were still doing their activities on the beach,” said a spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster agency. They had no time to escape. Many were swept out to sea, while dozens of buildings were destroyed.

“There was no time to save ourselves,” Dwi Haris told the Associated Press. “I was squeezed into the ruins of the wall... I heard my wife cry for help, but then silence. I don’t know what happened to her and my child. I hope they are safe.”

So far, 832 people have been reported dead. But Indonesia’s vice-president warned that the death toll could reach the thousands.

Although the search for survivors has begun, relief workers are still struggling to access the city. It is thought that nearby Donggala was also badly hit, but so far little has been heard from the city, where communications are cut off and a major bridge has collapsed. “This was a terrifying double disaster… but it could get much worse,” warned the Red Cross.

Tsunamis are triggered when underwater earthquakes cause a sudden surge of water, forming powerful waves which can travel up to 500 mph. Although they are rare, they are most commonly found in the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire”, which includes Indonesia.

An expert from the University of Oxford told The Guardian that this tsunami was “surprising”, as the quake was caused by tectonic plates shifting horizontally rather than vertically.

It was the latter type of earthquake which caused the catastrophic Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, killing 227,000 people — one of the worst natural disasters in history.

Indonesia invested heavily in its warning systems after 2004. Now, many are questioning why they did not work on Friday.

Could this disaster have been avoided?

Unnatural disaster

Yes, say some. You cannot control nature, but you can be prepared. The tsunami was missed because the closest tidal monitor was 125 miles away from Palu. In a country so prone to earthquakes, that is simply not good enough. The government should invest in better technology, stronger buildings and clearer evacuation procedures.

Sometimes there is nothing you can do, say others. Even if the tsunami had been detected in Palu, the people on the beach would have had just minutes to get away. That is what makes natural disasters so terrifying — they are unpredictable and inescapable. Sometimes nature is just too powerful for humans to stop.

You Decide

  1. Would you go on holiday to Indonesia, knowing its high risk of earthquakes?
  2. Will we ever be able to prevent all deaths from natural disasters?


  1. Create a poster or organise an event to help raise money for an Indonesian disaster relief fund.
  2. Draw and label a diagram that explains how tsunamis are formed.

Some People Say...

“Nature does nothing uselessly.”


What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Over 150 aftershocks followed the earthquake, which hit Indonesia around dusk on Friday. Most of the deaths recorded so far have been in Palu, where rescue workers are searching for survivors. As of last night, only 11 deaths had been recorded in Donggala, which some fear is even worse off than Palu.
What do we not know?
How many people have been killed, or how many buildings have been destroyed in the two cities. We also do not know how long the rescue effort will take. Although the military has been sent in to help, a lack of heavy machinery means that much of the rubble is being searched by hand in Palu. Meanwhile, communications with Donggala have been cut off.

Word Watch

The earthquake magnitude scale measures the severity of earthquakes from one to 10. Earthquakes between 7.0 and 7.9 are considered “major” events.
Ring of Fire
A 25,000-mile horseshoe shape which stretches around the rim of the Pacific Ocean. It includes the west coast of North and South America, and much of East Asia. Indonesia is one of the countries which sits directly in the Ring of Fire.
The geophysics researcher, Baptiste Gombert, speculated that there may have been a “landslide under the sea”, which is another cause of tsunamis. Alternatively, Palu’s narrow bay may have concentrated and amplified the waves.
Tectonic plates
Pieces of Earth’s crust. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions can both occur when the edges of these plates shift. When one plate shifts vertically underneath another, the sudden upsurge of water can cause a tsunami.
Boxing Day
The tsunami spread throughout the Indian Ocean, devastating parts of Indonesia, India, Thailand and others. Indonesia was one of the worst affected, with 168,000 deaths.


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