Fleeing Palu residents hampered by fuel shortage, crime and air chaos

People waiting in line to purchase fuel in Palu, Indonesia, on Oct 3, 2018. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Scenes of devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Indonesia, on Oct 3, 2018. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

PALU, CENTRAL SULAWESI - Residents of Palu are trying to flee the city - many by air - following last Friday's (Sept 28) 7.4-magnitude earthquake and tsunamis, which have cut power and limited supplies of fuel and clean water.

However, strong tremors have caused cracks across the local airport's runway, prompting airlines to switch to using smaller planes, creating increasing the backlog of passengers.

Residents have told The Straits Times that they are also being hampered by insufficient fuel to make long journeys and safety concerns following reports and online videos of looting and robberies.

Police have beefed up patrols on the Palu-Makassar route, and even before last week's disasters, travellers were advised not to pass through the Mamuju area - roughly the journey's halfway point - at night, as it has a higher crime rate.

Passengers, mostly from middle-class families, have been arriving early at Palu's Mutiara SIS Al-Jufrie airport to try and catch flights out. Flight schedules are random.

Lion Air restarted operations at the airport on Tuesday but is using 72-seat ATR planes which have less than half the capacity of its usual 183-seat Boeings.

State-controlled Garuda Indonesia has also restarted operations there.

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Among passengers hoping to fly to Makassar on Thursday morning was a 53-year-old civil servant who gave his name only as Mr Mustakim.

"If we had enough fuel, we would have left Palu days ago," said Mr Mustakim, who expects Jakarta to provide Hercules planes to fly people out. "A feasible option is to get out by air."

Ms Mislani Tiesmin, who is in her 60s, was frustrated by the fuel rations imposed by petrol stations: "They only let you buy less than 10 litres each time. How can we travel out of town?"

Ms Mona Howarto, 64, had queued since 4am on Wednesday with her family to catch a Lion Air flight that night, but they were told to go home in the evening because the airline still had to prioritise passengers having tickets bought on Sept 28 - a day after the quake.

"We have to get out of here," she said. "No electricity, no water. There is a water tank coming by in various spots in town, but I cannot stand the long queue."

Mr Ferry, 50, a civil servant in Morowali regency, Central Sulawesi province, told The Straits Times that he and his wife were waiting to get on a Sriwijaya Air flight for Makassar.

"We haven't heard back from Sriwijaya," he said. "Their officials are not around. In that corner earlier there was a paper sign board that reads 'Sriwijaya Help Desk'. It's not there anymore. Airport officials took it away."

Mr Tedi Hariadi, 48, took his wife and two sons to the airport to try to catch a flight on Wednesday night, as they have limited water supplies at home.

"For bathing, we use water from our old well," he said. "For houses that have wells, things could be much better off. But our well has slight oil content. We usually use it to water plants."

Residents with deep pockets, like Mr Yongky Kristianto, have found a more convenient way to escape.

The 45-year-old entrepreneur, who owns well-established upscale grocery store Seven Mart in Palu city centre, paid 187 million rupiah (S$17,200) in cash to charter a 65-seat NAM Air plane for his family and managed to leave Palu for Balikpapan, East Kalimantan province.

He gathered friends and relatives to chip in but there were still 18 seats empty when the group departed on Wednesday, five days after the quake.

Mr Yongky told The Straits Times that regular flights have not been managed well and that passengers face uncertainty.

"We all are going to Balikpapan and from there, we will go to different destinations," he said. "My family will go to Yogyakarta and stay there until things settle down in Palu."

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