Jan Gelfand told CNN on Friday that he expects the death toll and the number of missing people to rise.
Hundreds have been injured, according to the country’s disaster mitigation agency.
The epicenter of the earthquake, which occurred at 1.28 am Jakarta time (5.28 am AEDT), was six kilometers northeast of the city of Majene, at a depth of 10 kilometers, according to the Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics of Indonesia.
Thirty-four people died in the city of Mamuju, north of the epicenter, while another eight died in Majene.
In Majene, at least 637 were injured and 15,000 residents have been displaced, according to the country’s National Disaster Management Board (BNPB).
Thousands of residents fled their homes in search of safety after the earthquake, which could be felt for five to seven seconds and damaged at least 300 houses in Majene, BNPB said.
Other buildings have also suffered severe damage, including a military command office in Majene and hotels and government buildings in Mamuju.
Many people remain trapped under collapsed buildings, according to local search and rescue teams.
“Our priority is to save the victims who are still buried under the buildings,” Safaruddin Sanusi, head of West Sulawesi’s Department of Communications and Information, told CNN on Friday.
“For example, in the [West Sulawesi governor’s office] we are still trying to evacuate two security guards who are trapped inside. “
Almost half of the buildings in Mamuju have been destroyed by the earthquake, he added.
“Most of [the] the people of Mamuju city are now displaced. They are afraid to stay at home. “
The communications chief also said the earthquake had damaged four of Mamuju’s largest hospitals.
“Mitra Manakara [Hospital] is crushed by this earthquake, while three others, Mamuju Central Hospital, Bhayangkara Hospital and Regional Hospital are also in [a] bad situation, “he said.
“We need more extraction equipment and more personnel to work quickly [on] save the victims trapped under the building. “
“Our obstacle here is that we don’t have heavy equipment to rescue them,” Saidar Rahmanjaya, head of the Mamuju Local Search and Rescue Agency, West Sulawesi, told local television.
Gelfand told CNN on Friday that about 100 Red Cross volunteers and personnel, as well as tanker trucks and convoys, had deployed and were heading to the affected area.
He added that the task was difficult because the infrastructure was destroyed and there were landslides on the roads.
Gelfand also said that the affected area was a COVID-19 red zone and therefore there were hygiene and safety concerns.
Arianto Ardi, section chief of the Mamuju Search and Rescue Agency, told CNN that officials had completed evacuations at three houses that were razed by the earthquake.
The agency evacuated eight people from the first home. Three survived and five people died.
Another difficulty was the lack of communication between rescue teams, as local phone networks went down after the earthquake, he said, adding that there were eight places where people urgently needed to be rescued.
Shalahuddin Salman, a resident of Mamuju, said that many people were trapped because they were sleeping when the earthquake struck in the middle of the night.
“We saved four family members, but one cannot be evacuated yet,” he told CNN after he and a few others rescued a family from under a collapsed building.
“(He’s) trapped inside the building. We think he’s dead.”
Shalahuddin said he was concerned that many people would be trapped under the rubble of the Mitra Manakara private hospital, an eight-story structure that had been washed away by the earthquake.
Meanwhile, thousands of people who were able to flee have chosen to stay away from their homes for fear of another earthquake or tsunami, said West Sulawesi Grand Police Commissioner Syamsu Ridwan.
“Some of them go to the highlands to avoid the tsunami, although we have a confirmation that we do not have a tsunami after this big earthquake,” he said.
The country’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency said the earthquake did not trigger a tsunami according to the meteorology and climatology agency’s models.
The earthquake also caused a power outage and three landslides along the main road connecting Majene and Mamuju.
Hours earlier, on Thursday, a 5.9 magnitude earthquake shook the same district, damaging several houses.
Straddling the so-called “Ring of Fire” of the Pacific, Indonesia, a highly tectonic nation, is regularly hit by earthquakes.
In 2018, a devastating 6.2 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the city of Palu in Sulawesi, killing thousands of people.