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Death Toll Climbs Following Indonesian Tsunami


Traumatized residents in the hard-hit coastal town of Pangandaran are still finding victims in the debris from a tsunami that slammed into the Indonesian island of Java. Waves up to three meters high swept through villages along the southwest coast on Monday, killing more than 500 people. Camps and mosques are crowded with people frightened of more aftershocks and waves.

It is a scene unfolding with tragic frequency in Pangandaran on the south coast of Indonesia's most densely populated island of Java. Rescuers plunge their bare hands into the sandy soil, tearing away bricks and roots.

Minutes later, they uncover the body of a woman trapped by rubble and surging waters two days earlier. They place her body alongside dozens of others in a nearby container truck and move on in search of more victims.

The wall of water that swept ashore in Pangandaran on Monday carried with it homes, shops, hotels and terrified residents. Some of the 176 kilometers of Java coastline hit by the tsunami were scraped almost bare. In many areas, only a few coconut palms are left standing.

Residents say they had little warning. The waves crashed ashore about 45 minutes after a magnitude 7.7 earthquake shook the Indian Ocean seabed. The quake's epicenter was more than 100 kilometers offshore and barely registered on land.

Oji Suhaendi says he raced for shelter in the town's Agung Istiklal mosque with hundreds of others when he heard cries of "water, water."

Suhaendi says he just woke up when people screamed about a tsunami. He and his family are safe because they ran away to the mosque like everyone else.

Knowledge of the tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean in 2004 and devastated Indonesia's Aceh province helped this time round. It is now well known in Indonesia that when the ocean waters recede from the shore, it is time to run. So when Java's coastal residents saw the sea retreat, some fled immediately for higher ground.

Monday's tsunami was not as deadly as the 2004 disaster that claimed nearly 170,000 victims in Indonesia. However it has highlighted the danger faced by this archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, sitting atop an earthquake zone, which lacks a tsunami warning system.

Hendri Subakt, regional head of the government's earthquake and tsunami agency, says a national warning system will not be fully operational for years. He says seismologists had pinpointed the epicenter and magnitude of Monday's quake within minutes. They even received tsunami warnings from U.S. and Japanese monitoring stations. But they could not act on the information.

He says that their seismologists predicted the tsunami in earlier simulations, but they do not yet have a system to pass on the information to the people. He goes on to say they need to finish the early warning system as soon as possible.

Although many Indian Ocean nations and the United Nations have pledged to get a regional system in place, so far, there are few sensor buoys in place around Indonesia. And the Indonesian government has not outlined procedures for evacuating coastal areas. Pangandaran even lacks a siren.

Private groups rushing to the scene said aid was being distributed swiftly. Herman Widjaja, a member of the Buddhist aid organization Tzu Chi, says the government almost has the situation in hand.

"I think we just need a few more days' time here and that will be settled. Especially nowadays, the new government [is] really taking care on these matters. They're coordinated quite well," said Widjaja.

The government is getting food, water and medical supplies into the area. Relief workers are trying to reassure residents rattled by aftershocks and helping to put the town back together.