Reporter's diary: Making it to Palu
Updated 21:45, 08-Oct-2018
By Barnaby Chuck Lo
It had been barely a week since I returned home to Manila after weeks of covering disasters when the unthinkable happened. I wondered, "How much suffering can humanity take?"
First, it was the earthquake in Sapporo, Japan. I wasn't even done with that when news of a super typhoon approaching the Philippines came. Typhoon Mangkhut triggered deadly landslides. I thought that was it; September was about to end, but Mother Nature was not done.
On September 28, an earthquake hit Indonesia's Central Sulawesi province. That was followed by a tsunami that swept away houses and buildings. It was not immediately clear how deadly they were, but I was half expecting a call from my editors.
Donggala coastline. /CGTN Photo

Donggala coastline. /CGTN Photo

As the death toll reached the hundreds the next day, I started scrambling for flights to Indonesia. I didn't have any idea then how difficult it would be to get to Palu, the city hit hardest by the twin disasters. It quickly became clear, however, once we arrived in Indonesia.
With great effort, I was able to book my team a flight to Palu, but when photos of a severely damaged Palu airport started to emerge online, I was afraid our flight was never going to materialize. True enough, we ended up taking the long route – two flights and an overnight drive.
It was already our fourth day in Indonesia when we finally reached areas struck by the earthquake and tsunami. On our drive towards Palu, we saw the growing humanitarian crisis before there was even any destruction in sight.
Evacuees. /CGTN Photo

Evacuees. /CGTN Photo

We stopped at a makeshift evacuation camp in Donggala, a coastal town next to Palu. There were at least 100 people living in tents. One of them was Camila, born two days after the earthquake and tsunami. Her mother says it was not easy to flee at the height of her pregnancy, but she was afraid a strong aftershock or another tsunami would destroy their home.
In fact, most of the evacuees we spoke with in the camp did not necessarily have to live in squalid conditions, but they have chosen not to return home for the time being out of fear. Because they're living literally along the highway, it is hot and dusty. They are running low on money, and have received no aid from the government (at least until the day we met them).
As the scale of death and destruction from the earthquake and tsunami were becoming clear, it was also becoming more evident how both local and national governments were struggling to cope with the needs of survivors. Foreign governments offered help; President Joko Widodo accepted. But the difficulty of getting to the quake-stricken areas, as our personal experience has shown, has impeded aid efforts, especially in the immediate aftermath.
Balaroa housing complex flattened by earthquake. /CGTN Photo

Balaroa housing complex flattened by earthquake. /CGTN Photo

And if getting to Palu was a challenge, getting out was even more so. Every gas station we passed on our way to Palu had lines stretching hundreds of meters. People we spoke with said they waited days just to be able to buy fuel.
Donggala, however, was not as devastated as officials had feared, but a whole stretch of its coastline was washed away by the tsunami. There were debris all over the beach, and across the road, a mosque stood between crumpled cars and little reminders of what used to be houses. And as if those were not enough signs, the word "tsunami" was spray-painted on the body of a refrigerator.
It was a harrowing scene, but there would be more in Palu, where the tsunami rose to as high as six meters. It swallowed almost everything in its path; huge chunks of Palu were reduced to wastelands. Death was certain.
Officials had said they expect the death toll to be in the thousands. When I saw what had happened to the Balaroa housing complex in Palu, there was no doubt in my mind that that could be true. It appears the 7.4 magnitude earthquake may have been just as fatal as the tsunami.
Quake survivors wait to get on military plane at Palu airport. /CGTN Photo

Quake survivors wait to get on military plane at Palu airport. /CGTN Photo

One man told us his father-in-law was about to go into the community mosque when the earth shook. He held on to one of the fences, but he went up and down as the ground rose and fell. The mosque ended up on another side of the village. The old man survived, but military officers on the ground told us that as many 1,000 residents may have been buried under the rubble of houses that collapsed.
Search and rescue work continues, but the hope of finding survivors now is all but gone. Some are digging through rubble on their own in the hopes of finding their missing loved ones.
"We just want to be able to bury them," 33-year old Bowo, whose parents did not make it out of their house during the earthquake, told us.
(Top image: Baby Camila with her parents. /CGTN Photo)