Indonesia president visits cyclone-hit islands

Lembata (Indonesia) (AFP) –


Indonesian president Joko Widodo arrived Friday in a cyclone-hit cluster of islands after the disaster killed more than 200 people, including victims in neighbouring East Timor, with dozens still missing.

Torrential rains from Tropical Cyclone Seroja, one of the most destructive storms to hit the region in years, turned small communities into wastelands of mud and uprooted trees, sending thousands fleeing to shelters amid widespread blackouts.

Widodo, better known by his nickname Jokowi, arrived in hard-hit Lembata island Friday morning and was to visit several locations including evacuation shelters, the presidential palace said in a brief statement.

His visit came as the death toll from Sunday's floods-and-landslide disaster rose again.

At least 165 people have been listed as dead in Indonesia.

Another 42 were killed in East Timor -- a nation of 1.3 million sandwiched between Indonesia and Australia that is officially known as Timor-Leste.

More than 50 people are still missing in the two Southeast Asian nations, and disaster agency officials are still searching mountains of debris for bodies.

With thousands filling evacuation centres, authorities were scrambling to avoid a spread of Covid-19, and treat children affected by the disaster.

"We are starting to provide counselling services for traumatised kids," said Josef Nae Soi, vice governor of disaster epicentre East Nusa Tenggara province.

Indonesian cargo planes and navy ships packed with aid have arrived in the region with more than 4,000 military personnel sent to help in the relief effort.

A hospital ship was also en route to help treat survivors in the region, where local medical clinics have been overwhelmed.

More than 20,000 people have been evacuated from disaster-struck communities and many have been left homeless by the storm.

The cyclone is now headed for Australia, where authorities urged holidaymakers to evacuate a stretch of the country's west coast before it makes landfall late Sunday or early Monday.

Fatal landslides and flash floods are common across the Indonesian archipelago during the rainy season, with deforestation often the cause, environmentalists say.

The disaster agency has estimated that 125 million Indonesians -- nearly half of the country's population -- live in areas at risk of landslides.