Suburban ‘tsunami’ kills 77 in Jakarta

Members of a search and rescue team look for bodies near  Jakarta.
Rescuers widened the search for victims Saturday in the aftermath of a flash flood that killed at least 77 people in Indonesia’s capital.

The flood started Friday morning after heavy rains caused waters to smash through a dam and rush into Jakarta. The breach unleashed a torrent of water that plowed into hundreds of homes in what some survivors described as a suburban “tsunami.” The National Disaster Coordination Agency put the death toll at 77 and said 102 people were missing, 50 injured and at least 1,490 displaced. Sleeping residents were taken by surprise by the powerful flash flood as it crashed through the crowded Cirendeu district near Jakarta early Friday. Watch scenes of the flood devastation » Drenched and shivering survivors were taking refuge on the rooftops of their homes as rescuers in rubber boats were struggling to reach them, said social affairs ministry official Mardjito, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. He said officials were also trying to get food to the area, but relief efforts were being hampered by debris from the dam.

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“We’re still trying to get into the houses, but the problem is, mud is getting in our way,” he said. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, currently on the campaign trail ahead of elections later this year, said he had ordered senior ministers to visit the scene of the disaster. “On behalf of the government, I express my condolences to the families of the dead victims and may their souls be accepted by God almighty,” he said, according to the official Antara news agency. The rain obliterated a 255-meter-long section of the dam, releasing a wall of water from a 20-hectare lake that some survivors said reminded them of the tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004. “They said they had heard loud rumbling sounds like during a powerful earthquake. They later found out that the sounds came from the water rushing out from the dam’s lake,” according to Antara. Floods from heavy rains are an annual occurrence in and around Jakarta, a low-lying city on the northern coast of Java island, where poor infrastructure often results in polluted canals and rivers overflowing their banks and spilling into thousands of homes.

In 2007, 38 people were killed and 430,000 forced from their homes when storm water 3 meters deep in some places swamped 75 percent of the capital, which is home to about 9 million people. With poor sanitation and a hot and humid climate, the risk of water-borne diseases is usually a major concern following floods in the city, where mosquito-transmitted malaria is also a threat.