Confusion, exhaustion and fear in quake-hit PNG highlands

These days, Moses Komengi advises his wife and kids to stay out in the open area where the villagers have their banana gardens, and to stay away from big trees.

He lives near Tari, the capital of Papua New Guinea’s remote Hela province where large earthquakes have steadily driven local communities into a state of terror in the past ten days.

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“People are starting to fear … something might have been wrong somewhere and the bigger one will come,” Mr Komengi said.

He said that it’s been hard to sleep lately.

“There’s big fear around the place. Anything happen, so we are running to the safer place.”

Confusion, exhaustion and fear are the order of the day in this highlands region after a magnitude-7.5 earthquake centred in Hela on Monday, 26 February.

Since then, ongoing significant aftershocks, including one registering 6.7 in the early hours of yesterday morning, have been widely felt in a region where people are not used to earthquakes.

The death toll from last week’s 7.5-magnitude quake is hovering around 100, but expected to rise as the full extent of the damage emerges.

PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said today the quakes’ destruction was being felt widely across the region.

“Tragically, the highlands earthquake has already claimed the lives of an estimated more than 100 Papua New Guineans, with many more still missing and thousands of people injured,” he said.

So far it’s been extremely difficult for disaster teams, police and military personnel to reach many of the affected areas, particularly in Hela, due to the scale of the upheaval of terrain.

The quakes have triggered massive landslides which have buried whole villages, food gardens and contaminated water supplies.

Speaking to RNZ Pacific this morning, the administrator of Southern Highlands province, Thomas Eluh, said 45 deaths had been counted across his province.

“It’s still a problem as it occurs on a daily basis, and we still have landslides.

“Yesterday unfortunately five more people were added to the figure. It was on 40 yesterday, but … the latest earthquake trigged a house to fall on top of a family, and then five of them died as a result of it.”

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Reports from neighbouring Hela indicated there were around 50 known deaths from the quakes, while in Western Province reports said as many as 13 people died.

Remote communities in need

The doctor in charge of the medical response in Hela said many people in remote areas were yet to receive any assistance.

Tana Kiak has spent the days since helicoptering and walking from village-to-village helping the injured and tallying the death-toll in areas where entire villages have been wiped out by landslides.

Dr Kiak said some villages were on hillsides, with loose ground being unsettled by constant aftershocks. These villagers need help to move.

A landslide cutting of the road from Tambul to Mendi following a 7.5 earthquake.

A landslide cutting of the road from Tambul to Mendi following a 7.5 earthquake. Photo: Andrew Solomon

“People are so scared,” he said.

“For me, the national government should think of finding them temporary shelter somewhere that’s much safer. Some people are living on the plateau, the cliff, and there’s a crack on the ground where the next earthquake might push them down into the valley.”

According to Dr Kiak, outside assistance was still to reach much of the province. He said conditions were starting to become ripe for an epidemic.

“We need to think about the public health issues. You know, the outbreak of diarrheal disease, pneumonia – people sleeping out and getting pneumonia or other diseases, you know.

“These are the kind of things we need to start addressing now otherwise we will have an epidemic of those diseases.”

Dr Kiak said aid agencies and donor countries were bringing supplies to the region, but they were slow in arriving.

An estimated 150,000 people in the region are in need of basic supplies, medicine and shelter. For a portion of these, the needs are urgent.

According to Mr Komengi, tents were generally required because people were too afraid to stay in their homes.

“If [the aftershocks] continue, some of the houses might break. It’s already shaky so we don’t know,” he said.

“If things happen then people might need shelters to stay out, because at this moment some who have cars are with their families to the open field and they are staying in the cars.”

Harrowing stories

As stories trickle in from affected communities, harrowing accounts are piling up about the death and destruction.

In recent days, PNG journalist Scott Waide has been in the area and visited a village where 11 people died when the mountainside came crashing through their homes.

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“There’s a kid who is in grade five. He goes to school in Margarima – Margarima is very far away from his village. He came back to ask his parents for school fees [but] on his way back his whole family was wiped out – his siblings, his mother, his father and an uncle have all died. So he’s the only one in the family left.”

Hela people tended to suspect a malign force was causing the quakes. The MP for Komo Margarima, the district where the big quake’s epicentre was located, called for answers.

Delays in getting relief to quake affected PNG highlands: RNZ Checkpoint

Photo: RNZ / YouTube

“Send an independent assessment team comprising of scientists such as geologists who must carefully go around the affected areas and particularly the epicentre and establish the cause of the earthquake,” he said.

Meanwhile, over in Southern Highlands, Thomas Eluh said disaster officers had managed a general assessment of most areas in the province.

“We have about six care centres where people have congregated into.

“Unfortunately the roads are still blocked at the moment, and we are working on it right as we speak. To get to the care centres in most of the affected areas, by this time they are only accessible by chopper.”

According to the administrator, relief supply packages from Port Moresby arrived in the provincial capital Mendi yesterday.

Mr Eluh said he has been told there will be more to follow soon, although help from international partners such as Australia, New Zealand and Israel as well as aid agencies was already materialising.

In the case of Hela, where there is still a power blackout and telecommunications remain badly disrupted, relief is slowest to arrive.

Logistical help from companies such as Oil Search and ExxonMobil, who commercialise the region’s oil and gas fields, is vital to both relief and assessment efforts, which are heavily reliant on helicopters.

The damage caused to the region’s airstrips has prevented bigger planes getting in.

PNG’s government said it had transferred money to the affected districts for the immediate disbursal of relief supplies, but Moses Komengi said that in Tari there was little sign of this.

All he can do is wait while hoping that the even bigger quake locals all seem to fear doesn’t materialise. /radionz