THE PITILESS devastation visited upon the Indonesian island of Sulawesi by an earthquake and tsunami is the stuff of nightmares — the soft soil in towns and villages turning into liquefied sludge that swept away thousands of homes. The death toll, already exceeding 1,500, is certain to rise, perhaps exponentially, as rescuers disinter bodies entombed in the tons of displaced earth and debris. And now, more than a week after the earth buckled and the water surged, there are reports that aid is arriving at a trickle, compounding the island’s misery.
Food, water, fuel and shelter — in a tropical setting where brutal daytime temperatures have tormented survivors and relief workers — are critically needed. So is restoring order in a disaster zone whose fragility has been highlighted by desperate mobs accosting trucks bearing supplies. In the weeks and months to come, it will be imperative that repair work proceed on the disaster zone’s badly damaged communications and infrastructure networks, including roads, ports and airports. Indonesia will need huge amounts of resources and cash — and help from international donors.
Set against the vast scale of need and suffering, international aid has arrived too slowly. The United States on Friday announced that it is sending $3.7 million in humanitarian assistance, including emergency shelter material that will help more than 100,000 people. That effort will be supplemented by donations from ordinary Americans. But it is critical that the Trump administration does all it can — both in the interests of alleviating human suffering and as a goodwill gesture to the world’s fourth-most-populous country and most populous majority-Muslim nation. Teams of experts on the ground in Sulawesi from the U.S. Agency for International Development are continuing to assess needs and logistics.
It will be up to Indonesia’s authorities to determine whether, in an earthquake- and tsunami-prone region, systems that would have alerted residents to impending disaster — the waves following the temblor — were adequate and properly maintained. Initial reports suggested they were not. However, given that the walls of water washed ashore just minutes after the ground shook, it’s unclear whether even the most sophisticated technology would have significantly lessened the death toll.
For now, Indonesia has its hands full responding to damage across a swath of Sulawesi’s central coast, including cities, villages and hamlets, some in remote regions. In addition to tending to the dead, who must be buried quickly in the heat to minimize the spread of disease, tens of thousands of people have been made homeless.
Images from the affected area have shown distraught people begging for food, water and basic supplies. In places where people have suddenly lost everything, there is enormous demand for mattresses, blankets, clothing, tents and much else. The speed and efficacy of relief and recovery efforts present a test, both for Indonesia and the community of nations.