January 3, 2006

Indonesia flood toll hits 63, villages cut off

By Sigit Pamungkas

KEMIRI, Indonesia (Reuters) - Hundreds of rescue workers
and soldiers struggled on Tuesday to reach villages devastated
by floods and landslides in Indonesia's East Java as the known
death toll climbed to 63.

Eddy Susilo, head of the Information Ministry branch in the
town of Jember, not far from the scene, said the bodies of 61
villagers had been found. Two rescue workers had also drowned
in swollen rivers on Tuesday, he added.

Heavy rains late on Sunday triggered the floods and
landslides at six hillside villages near Jember, around 800 km
(500 miles) east of Jakarta.

Most of the villagers lived on coffee plantations and river
banks where many trees had been felled, stripping the area of
natural protection from such a disaster.

A few villages were still cut off because of collapsed
bridges and landslides blocking access, said Muhammad Suryadi
of the state disaster management agency.

"Thousands have sought refuge and more than 300 can't get
out," Suryadi said.

As well as the fast-flowing rivers, sporadic rains was
slowing evacuation efforts, rescue officials said.

One survivor said he had fled with his baby to nearby woods
after surging water killed his wife and flattened his home.
They had not eaten since Sunday evening, he said, after
arriving in the village of Kemiri, where rescuers are based.

"I am depressed because I lost my wife and my house. The
only one left is my baby," said Ratimin, 38.

His baby looked pale and virtually lifeless.

In Kemiri, around 100 soldiers used fallen trees to build
emergency bridges to try to cross raging waterways and reach
those in need.


Mud was waist deep in some parts of Kemiri, where an
avalanche of mud had flattened most houses along the river

Flooding and landslides are common in tropical Indonesia.
Many mudslides are caused by illegal logging or clearing
farmland that removes natural protection.

"How did the mud smash through if not because of the lack
of barriers?" Susilo told Reuters.

"Residents say if they don't cut trees, others will. This
is what happens in the end. The forest looks thick from afar
but when you enter you can see chopped areas in the middle."

One local politician blamed corporate coffee planters.

"Those who cut the trees are now watching the disaster on
television while villagers suffer," said Suyoto, a member of
the East Java legislative council.

Separately, landslides killed two people in a hillside
village in Central Java, local media reported.

(Additional reporting by Heri Retnowati in Surabaya)