Jakarta. The Central Sulawesi provincial government has decided to turn areas affected by soil liquefaction during last month's devastating earthquake into memorial parks or historical sites, as the bodies of many of the victims buried by mudflows cannot be recovered before search and rescue operations end on Thursday.
"The evacuation of disaster victims will be stopped by the end of the disaster relief deadline. Then the areas of Perumnas Balaroa, Petoboa and Jonooge will be converted to memorial parks or historical sites, and monuments will be built in those locations," Central Sulawesi Governor Longki Djanggola said in Palu on Monday.
The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) said the search for thousands of missing victims in areas obliterated by soil liquefaction during the magnitude-7.4 earthquake and tsunami on Sept. 28 will cease due to safety concerns over potential health hazards.
However, the decision has created anger among victims' families, who demand that the government continue search efforts to find their loved ones.
"If we continue to try recovering the bodies, not only would identifying the victims become difficult, it could potentially lead to an outbreak of disease and place those who are alive in danger," BNPB head Willem Rampangilei said at a press conference in Jakarta on Monday.
The death toll in the twin disasters that hit Palu, Donggala, Sigi and Parigi Moutong had risen to 2,100 on Tuesday, according to Reuters.
More than 10,600 people were injured and nearly 75,000 displaced, while nearly 66,000 houses were destroyed, according to the BNPB's latest data.
An estimated 5,000 people are reportedly missing in the villages of Balaroa and Petobo, though the BNPB says this figure is based on information from village heads and therefore needs to be verified.
Renald Refai, a resident of Perumnas Balaroa, told the Jakarta Globe in Palu last week that approximately only a third of the total population in the housing complex survived the earthquake. The tremor triggered soil liquefaction, which buried the entire housing complex and surrounding areas in Balaroa village.
Religious leaders have suggested that government stop the recovery of bodies from the housing complex, which was home to around 800 households, or an estimated 5,000 people.
During a meeting led by Governor Longki in Palu on Monday, religious leaders suggested to that the affected area be turned into a mass grave and that survivors be relocated to safer locations.
Ashar Yotomaruangi, the head of South Palu subdistrict, meanwhile said approximately 13,000 people were affected by the quake in Petobo but that the fate of only around 4,900 has so far been confirmed, while the remainder are still missing.
"According to the Indonesian Ulema Council's suggestion, the community hopes that the location can be turned into a mass grave," Ashar said during the meeting in Palu. He added that many of the survivors are too traumatized to return to the area.
The BNPB estimated last week that at least 1,000 people were buried under mud in the areas affected by soil liquefaction. As of Monday, the agency said 835 people were still missing – most of them believed to have fallen victim to the rare natural phenomenon.
"We don't yet know for sure [how many are still missing]; it could be that they were not in the location when the disaster struck, so we must verify the data," Willem said.
Soil liquefaction occurs when strong vibrations, such as from an earthquake, cause soil to lose its cohesion and rigidity, resulting in it behaving more like a liquid. This phenomenon occurred in Petobo in South Palu and Jonooge in Sigi district, where thousands of buildings in an area of nearly 400 hectares were destroyed.
The district government will determine what will happen to these areas, though it confirmed that residents will be relocated to a safer area.
Willem said the district government is discussing the matter with local leaders and residents.
In Jonooge, where muddy ground remains unstable, officials cannot use excavators and are still waiting for suitable equipment to continue their search.
The scale of the damage has prompted officials to not only consider complete relocation, which Willem said is certain in areas such as Talise Beach and the coastal area of Donggala district, but also to create a new layout for the city.
He added that related experts and officials are in the process of drawing up a new layout for Palu.
Governor Longki said on Monday that the electricity supply and distribution of petrol have returned to normal and that most markets and shops had reopened.