PALU, Indonesia — Gathered with her extended family under a wide tree at the edge of a dusty soccer field, Veronika is among the tens of thousands of Palu residents stuck in limbo.
A week after a powerful earthquake flattened entire villages and a tsunami hit this coastal region on the island of Sulawesi, the Indonesian government is shifting its attention to the mammoth task of cleaning up and rebuilding.
The twin disasters have caused an estimated $700 million in damage and taken at least 1,571 lives. Officials say that rebuilding and reconstructing the villages could take months, as engineers and scientists work to guarantee that the new cities will be better able to withstand the region’s frequent quakes.
For more than 70,000 homeless survivors, and for the many who have lost loved ones, there is the more urgent and daunting task of deciding what to do next.
Some have crowded the crippled airport looking for coveted spots on flights out of the city. Others have joined caravans of motorbikes and cars streaming south to larger cities.
Most, however, remain scattered at makeshift camps pitched on any patch of open space. Living room rugs now serve as tent floors. One family’s cages of pet birds were neatly tied to a rope between two bamboo poles. Those whose houses have not been destroyed say they are afraid to go back inside, fearing the weakened structures could collapse, especially if there is a strong aftershock.
Many know, too, that they will be dependent on aid and handouts for weeks, or longer.
While Palu, the first city reached by rescuers and aid workers after the quake, was slowly returning to a semblance of normalcy, aid distribution points remained chaotic and unable to handle the still acute hunger and thirst.
At an aid distribution point set up in a local police station in the Besusu district of Palu, hundreds of people filled the building’s courtyard hoping to receive prepackaged cups of water and instant noodles. Many had waited for hours and had come searching for supplies from more remote areas that have not been reached by aid.
“If we don’t look [for help], we don’t eat,” said Ismaina Sampole, 50. “The people from the outskirts don’t get help, unless you camp out in front of the mayor’s office.”
Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who is leading the rescue effort, visited Balaroa, a neighborhood like Veronika’s that was wiped out when the ground turned into a rushing slurry of soil, a phenomenon known as liquefaction.
Residents who once lived here, he said, would be relocated to other areas because it would be impossible to rebuild their villages. The government, he added, will spend about two months focused on emergency responses, including building temporary shelters for those who have lost homes.
“Then after that, [we will conduct] reconstruction of damaged houses and buildings,” he said.
For Veronika, whom The Washington Post first met Sunday as she desperately tried to make her way to Palu to locate her missing family, the decision of what comes next has been made for her. Her village of Petobo was wiped off the map.
“Where can we move to?” she asked Friday.
Petobo, where Veronika lived her entire life, is not an option. The ground is too unstable, her husband, Novrianto, says. When Veronika sees what remains of the village, she cries uncontrollably.
Veronika arrived before dawn on Monday at an air base in Makassar, south of Palu, for transport on a military plane. That same evening, she heard the news that her husband and children were alive — and her desperation to get on a seat grew. At 10 p.m., she was told that there was none for her. She stopped a bus heading north, pleading with the driver to let her on. The driver told her there were no empty seats, so she sat in the aisle for 23 hours.
Back in Palu, Novrianto was nursing scrapes and cuts across his hands and face that he suffered while he dashed with his two children from their crumbling house.
Outside, the asphalt street had opened into deep crevasses. Homes in the village appeared to have turned into a “swamp,” he said, and a power pole was pushed along so quickly by the moving ground that Novrianto said it looked as though they were being chased.
“Whenever I tell this story, I realize that it’s really hard to believe,” he said. “How could a power pole chase us? My neighbor got swept away not by water, but by the ground. If you weren’t there, you probably wouldn’t believe it.”
In addition to worrying about finding a place to live, Veronika is concerned about her two young sons and possible trauma from what they experienced.
One barely speaks. The other cries and mumbles in his sleep.
“Just ask him, ‘Where’s the house?’ He’ll say, ‘It’s turned into a pool,’ ” she said of her older son.
“Or ask him, ‘What grade are you in?’ He’ll say, ‘The school was turned into porridge.’ ”