In tsunami-ravaged parts of Indonesia, a somber Christmas

Lindsay Schnell

Communities in Indonesia still reeling from a devastating weekend tsunami that killed at least 429 people and swept away homes and businesses marked a bleak Christmas on Tuesday. 

More than 50 people are still missing, according to a report Monday  from the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Search teams continue to dig through rubble, looking for victims. Some places are virtually cut off from aid, and traveling on roads remains problematic.

More than 1,500 people were injured and at least 16,000 were left homeless by the tsunami, which hit with little warning, according to Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia's National Board for Disaster Management.

False alarms are the latest problem to rock the region as locals fear getting caught in the next disaster. 

An Indonesian man searches for the body of a relative at a damaged house in Sukarame village in Carita, Banten province. The death toll from the volcano-triggered tsunami in Indonesia has risen to 373 people Monday, with 1,459 people injured. And 128 people remain missing according to authorities.

Tuesday, residents ran to higher ground, shouting, "Water is coming! Water is coming!" They recited verses from the Quran as emergency messages blared over mosque speakers. 

It was a false alarm, but a similar frenzy broke out in Tanjung Lesung, another tsunami-stricken area hours away, as unsettled survivors of the disaster remained traumatized.

Christmas celebrations were replaced by somber prayers, and church leaders called on Christians across Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, to pray for tsunami victims.

Pastor Markus Taekz said his Rahmat Pentecostal Church in the hard-hit area of Carita did not celebrate Christmas with joyous songs this year. Instead, only about 100 people showed up for the service, which usually brings in double that number. Many congregation members had already left the area for locations away from the disaster zone.

“This is an unusual situation because we have a very bad disaster that killed hundreds of our sisters and brothers in Banten,” Taekz said, referring to the province on Java island. “So our celebration is full of grief.”

Unlike other tsunamis that have hit disaster-prone Indonesia following large earthquakes, Saturday’s big waves blasted ashore at night without warning. The eruption of Anak Krakatau  – or child of Krakatoa – a volcano in the Sunda Strait, probably created a landslide on the volcano’s slope, displacing a large volume of water that slammed into the islands of Java and Sumatra.

Volcanologist Jess Phoenix told the BBC that because Anak Krakatau  is surrounded by water, "there is even greater interaction of water and hot volcanic materials, which produces more steam and a messy-looking eruption." 

It was the second deadly tsunami to hit Indonesia this year. A powerful earthquake triggered a tsunami that hit Sulawesi island in September, but residents had at least a brief warning before waves hit. Still, that tsunami left more than 2,000 dead. A quake on the island of Lombok killed 505 people in August.

More: Burials begin in Indonesia as rescue need becomes desperate

Indonesia, a vast archipelago of more than 17,000 islands and home to 260 million people, lies along the Ring of Fire, an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.

Anak Krakatau is a volcanic island that formed in the early part of the 20th century near the site of the cataclysmic 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, which killed more than 30,000 people and hurled so much ash that it turned day to night in the area and reduced global temperatures.

People inspect the damage at a tsunami-ravaged neighborhood in Carita, Indonesia, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. The tsunami occurred after the eruption of a volcano around Indonesia's Sunda Strait during a busy holiday weekend, sending water crashing ashore and sweeping away hotels, hundreds of houses and people attending a beach concert. (AP Photo) ORG XMIT: XJAK118

The head of Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency, Dwikorita Karnawati, said Saturday’s tsunami was likely caused by Anak Krakatau’s volcanic activity and so could not have been picked up by sensors, which monitor conventional earthquakes responsible for more than 90 percent of Indonesia’s tsunamis.

She said the tsunami was probably caused by the collapse of a big section of the volcano’s slope. Anak Krakatau has been erupting since June and did so again 24 minutes before the tsunami, according to the geophysics agency. Other scientists have said an underwater landslide may also have contributed to the disaster.

More: Indonesia's tsunami never triggered the alert system

Military troops, government personnel and volunteers continued searching Tuesday along debris-strewn beaches. Yellow, orange and black body bags were laid out where victims were found, and weeping relatives identified the dead. Many searched for missing loved ones at hospital morgues.

The lead singer of the Indonesian pop band Seventeen located the body of his dead wife after multiple emotional social media posts where he vowed not to leave her. The group was performing at a beach hotel when the tsunami was captured on video smashing into their stage, killing several band members and crew.

Saturday’s disaster came ahead of the anniversary of the massive Asian tsunami that hit Dec. 26, 2004, after a magnitude 9.1 earthquake off Sumatra island spawned huge waves. The giant wall of water killed about 230,000 people.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In tsunami-ravaged parts of Indonesia, a somber Christmas