Race to find dozens missing in deadly Indonesia, East Timor floods

Handrianus Emanuel - Agence France-Presse
Race to find dozens missing in deadly Indonesia, East Timor floods
Villagers carry the body of a victim after flash floods in Lembata, East Flores, on April 5, 2021, as torrential rains triggered floods and landslides that have killed at least 91 people and left dozens missing in Indonesia and neighbouring East Timor.
AFP / Handrianus Emanuel

LEMBATA, Indonesia — Rescuers were searching for dozens of people still missing Tuesday after floods and landslides swept away villages in Indonesia and East Timor, killing at least 120 people and leaving thousands more homeless.

Torrential rains from Tropical Cyclone Seroja, one of the most destructive storms to hit the region in years, turned small communities into wastelands of mud, uprooted trees and sent around 10,000 people fleeing to shelters across the neighbouring Southeast Asian nations.

Indonesia's disaster management agency said it had recorded 86 deaths in a cluster of remote islands. In East Timor another 34 have been officially listed as dead since the disaster struck on Sunday.

Authorities revised down an initial higher death toll for Indonesia, citing miscommunication with local agencies.

But search and rescue teams there were racing to find more than 100 people still missing and were using diggers to clear mountains of debris. 

The storm swept buildings in some villages down a mountainside and to the shore of the ocean on Lembata island, where several small communities have been wiped off the map. 

"This area will never be inhabited again," said Lembata district official Eliyaser Yentji Sunur, referring to a flattened part of Waimatan village.

"We won't let people live here. Like it or not, they'll have to relocate."

Waimatan resident Onesimus Sili said floods early Sunday destroyed his community before anyone knew what was happening.

"Around midnight, we heard a very loud rumbling sound and we thought it was a nearby volcano erupting," he told AFP.

"By the time we realised that it was a flash flood, the houses were already gone."

Authorities in both nations were scrambling to shelter evacuees.

In East Timor, wheelchair-bound Maria de Fatima Soares, 66, was among those who saw their homes vanish in an instant.

"But thank God I'm still alive," she told AFP from an evacuation centre in the capital Dili.

"I hope this all ends soon."

COVID-19 fears 

Crammed shelters have heightened fears of a spike in COVID-19 cases, as East Timor recorded its first virus death Tuesday -- a 44-year-old woman.

The tiny half-island nation of 1.3 million sandwiched between Indonesia and Australia, officially known as Timor-Leste, quickly shut down its borders last year to avoid a widespread outbreak that threatened to overwhelm its creaky health care system.

"It is critical that we move quickly and carefully to prevent the spread of Covid-19 during this emergency," said Peter Goodfellow, country director for CARE International.

"If the floods cause a superspreader event, it will put a damaged and strained health care system under extraordinary pressure."

Local officials in Indonesia's Lembata were bracing for its meagre health facilities to be overwhelmed as the number of injured coming from isolated villages soars.

"These evacuees fled here with just wet clothes on their backs and nothing else," said the area's deputy mayor, Thomas Ola Longaday.

"They need blankets, pillows, mattresses and tents."

There was also a dire shortage of trained doctors. 

"We don't have enough anaesthesiologists and surgeons, but we've been promised that help will come," Longaday said.

"Many survivors have broken bones because they were hit by rocks, logs and debris."

Nearby in East Flores municipality, torrents of mud washed over homes, bridges and roads.

'Extreme weather' 

Earlier images from Indonesia's search and rescue agency showed workers digging up mud-covered corpses before placing them in body bags.

Hospitals, bridges and thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed by the storm, which is now moving toward the west coast of Australia.

But Indonesia "could still see extreme weather for the next few days", said national disaster agency spokesman Raditya Jati.

Authorities were working to evacuate remote communities and provide shelter to those hit by the storm, he added.

Fatal landslides and flash floods are common across the Indonesian archipelago during the rainy season. 

January saw floods hit the Indonesian town of Sumedang in West Java, killing 40 people.  

And last September, at least 11 people were killed in landslides on Borneo. 

The disaster agency has estimated that 125 million Indonesians -- nearly half of the country's population -- live in areas at risk of landslides.

The disasters are often caused by deforestation, according to environmentalists. — with Maria Vieira in Dili



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