Thousands of people are still missing, and feared dead, in Indonesia following a catastrophic earthquake and consequent tsunami that struck the island of Sulawesi last week.
Indonesian officials said Monday that the death toll from the disaster had risen to over 1,900, reported Channel News Asia. That number, however, is expected to dramatically increase — possibly even triple — once all casualties are determined.
“Every day we find more bodies,” 2nd Lt. Nirwan Adi Putranto told Time magazine.
In Balaroa and Petobo, two of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the city of Palu, an estimated 5,000 people remain missing, said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster agency, on Sunday. Nugroho said it was difficult to pinpoint the exact number of missing as many of them are believed to have been in buildings that were swallowed up ― some of them whole ― into the earth because of a process known as soil liquefaction.
“Liquefaction occurs when loose sandy soils with shallow groundwater are subjected to sudden loading such as shaking from an earthquake,” Jonathan Stewart, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained to CNN. “During the earthquake, water pressure is generated in the soil, which causes a dramatic loss of strength. The strength loss can be so great that the soil behaves almost like a liquid.”
More than 3,000 homes in Balaroa and Petobo were damaged or buried under “rivers of soil” in the aftermath of the quake. This number included an entire government housing complex in Balaroa, where over a thousand families had lived, The Guardian reported. It’s unknown how many people were in the complex when it was submerged.
Though the odds of finding anyone alive in the rubble at this point are razor-thin at best, Indonesian officials have said that rescuers will have until Thursday to search for survivors and recover bodies. After that time, the destroyed areas will be designated as mass graves and left untouched, The Guardian said.
The United Nations said about 200,000 people in Sulawesi are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Several countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and Japan, have sent millions of dollars worth of aid to the area, but shortages of food and water remain major challenges.