The fatal alchemy of mud, water and sheer force struck in eastern Indonesia on Sunday an hour after midnight, killing at least 41 people, relief officials said.
Flash floods and landslides submerged entire neighborhoods in East Nusa Tenggara province, which includes more than 560 islands. Seven villages were severely affected, according to Raditya Jati, spokesperson for the Indonesian National Agency for Disaster Mitigation. Twenty-seven people were missing and nine were injured, he said.
Some of the worst damage occurred on the remote island of Adonara, where many residents were preparing to celebrate Easter Sunday. Torrential rains and strong winds had been fighting since the day before. The damage left dozens of houses under the mud and water. Five bridges were cut, Raditya said.
The rescue effort has been hampered because the only access to Adonara is by sea and the waters are rough due to heavy rains, he said. But the priority is to ensure that the survivors are moved to areas safe from further flooding or landslides.
“We are still coordinating with different departments,” Raditya said. “We are focusing on the first answer right now.”
East Nusa Tenggara is the only Roman Catholic-majority province in Indonesia, which is the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world.
Every year during the monsoon season, Indonesia prepares for a water catastrophe. But the country faces other adversities. With thousands of inhabited islands perched in the seismically active “ring of fire,” Indonesia is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, flash floods, landslides, and severe storms.
In recent years, the country has also faced air crashes, boat accidents, and other transportation lapses.
In January, landslides killed about 40 people on Java, Indonesia’s most populous island. There, another landslide occurred after disaster management officials gathered to help with search and rescue efforts. The head of a local disaster relief agency and an Indonesian army captain were among the dead.
Rampant deforestation in Indonesia has contributed to the risk of such disasters, leaving the soil loose and at risk of merging into deadly mud streams when torrential rains arrive.
Before this weekend, the national meteorological department had warned of a high intensity of rain, Raditya said. But many residents of small, remote islands like Adonara have few safe places to take refuge.
“I think the biggest challenge will be how to use heavy equipment,” Raditya said, referring to efforts to excavate people and homes in hopes of finding survivors.
But given the communications challenges, Raditya said he wasn’t sure Adonara had the right equipment available.