June 23, 2006

Indonesia searches sea for landslide, flood victims

SINJAI, Indonesia (Reuters) - Indonesian search and rescue
operations turned to the sea on Friday in the search for
missing victims after landslides and floods on eastern Sulawesi
island killed 201 people, officials said.

A senior Red Cross official said some people might have
been swept away after two days of torrential rain in South
Sulawesi province at the beginning of the week flattened homes
and turned vast swathes of land into lakes.

More than 300 people are still missing in the area where
rescuers have been scouring mud-filled homes and digging into
mud from landslides or left behind by the floods in their
search for survivors, a disaster task force official said.

The Red Cross official had earlier pegged the death toll at
215 and the number of missing at 62. Estimates in Indonesia
vary frequently due to poor communications with remote areas,
which makes it difficult to pin down the exact numbers.

"The search is directed to the sea because the ... people
who are missing are suspected to have been swept into the
ocean," Rahman Bando, South Sulawesi branch head of the
Indonesian Red Cross, told Reuters by phone from Makassar, the
provincial capital.

Makassar is about 1,400 km (870 miles) east of Jakarta.

Worst-hit Sinjai regency accounted for 185 deaths while the
rest of the deaths occurred in other regencies in the province
where rescue efforts have been hampered by the inaccessibility
of some areas because roads and bridges have been damaged.

"Food aid is still inadequate. The other problem is food
distribution because many places are mountainous and in remote
areas. Maybe today we will drop food by army helicopters,"
Moersen Buana, a disaster task force official in Makassar.

Clean drinking water was another problem as some wells were
mixed with flood waters and mud.

Many villages on river banks in the area have been damaged
with traditional wooden houses flattened and concrete buildings
covered with mud.

Aid workers have set up public kitchens and the central
government has sent medicines, blankets and sarongs and
instructed local officials to help people move to safer areas.

Sulawesi is resource-rich, with numerous mining operations,
but they have not been hit because they are far from the
affected areas.

Tropical downpours and resulting floods and landslides are
relatively common in Indonesia.

Rampant deforestation often adds to the ease with which
hillsides are saturated and collapse as well as to flooding,
since the lack of vegetation means less ground water is
retained, environmentalists say.