0102 GMT February 16, 2019
Indonesia's disaster agency said they have recovered 1,763 bodies so far from the 7.5-magnitude and subsequent tsunami that struck Sulawesi on September 28, AFP reported.
But there are fears that two of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in Palu – Petobo and Balaroa – could contain thousands more victims, swallowed up by ground that engulfed whole communities in a process known as liquefaction.
"Based on reports from the (village) heads of Balaroa and Petobo, there are about 5,000 people who have not been found," agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told reporters Sunday.
"Nevertheless, officials there are still trying to confirm this and are gathering data. It is not easy to obtain the exact number of those trapped by landslides, or liquefaction, or mud."
Nugroho said the search for the unaccounted would continue until October 11, at which point they would be listed as missing, presumed dead.
The figure drastically increases the estimates for those who disappeared when the disaster struck 10 days ago. Officials had initially predicted some 1,000 people were buried beneath the ruins of Palu.
But the latest tally speaks to the considerable destruction in the worst-hit areas of Petobo and Balaroa as the picture on the ground has become clearer.
Petobo, a cluster of villages in Palu, was virtually wiped out by the powerful quake and wall of water that devastated Palu.
Much of it was sucked whole into the ground as the vibrations from the quake turned soil to quicksand.
It was feared that beneath the crumbled rooftops and twisted rebar, a vast number of bodies remain entombed.
The government has been considering declaring those communities flattened in Palu disaster as mass graves, and leaving them untouched.
Hopes of finding anyone alive have faded, as the search for survivors morphs into a grim gathering and accounting of the dead.
"This is day ten. It would be a miracle to actually find someone still alive," Muhammad Syaugi, the head of Indonesia's search and rescue agency told AFP on Sunday.
The grim news came as relief efforts were ramped up to reach 200,000 people in desperate of help after days of delays.
Looters ransacked shops in the aftermath of the disaster more than a week ago, as food and water ran dry and convoys bringing life-saving relief were slow to arrive.
The tens of thousands left homeless by the disaster are scattered across Palu and beyond, many squatting outside their ruined homes or bunkered down in makeshift camps and entirely dependent on handouts to survive.