Help is slow to come, nearly a week after PNG quake

3:43 pm on 3 March 2018

For nearly a week, Isaac Pulupe and seven of his family members have been living under a bit of canvas stretched between the remnants of his house, with little food, dirty water and no electricity.

Mr Pulupe lives in Tari, a town in the Papua New Guinea Highlands close to the epicentre of a magnitude 7.5 earthquake which struck in the early hours of Monday.

Tari, the capital of Hela Province, has borne the brunt of its fury, but for days that was difficult to ascertain, with most communication links cut off.

Tari - PNG  earthquake

There has been extensive damage in Tari, the capital of Hela Province. Nearly a week on, aid has been slow to arrive. Photo: Sokere Hali/Facebook

Mobile phone coverage has been gradually restored and in a phone interview on Saturday, Mr Pulupe said the scale of devastation in the town of 10,000 was immense. Most of its buildings had collapsed, he said, including schools and parts of the hospital.

"Most people have been traumatised emotionally from all that is happening and the continual earthquakes going on," he said. "Most people, their gardens and even homes have been collapsed."

Most of the town was now living in tents, under tarpaulins, or ramshackle huts built from the rubble, which sometimes toppled in the near constant aftershocks that have rattled the region for five days now.

There was no electricity, food supplies were running out, and water had been contaminated by landslides further upstream. Mr Pulupe said he was not sure of the number of casualties in the town, but it was believed to be in the dozens.

Nearly a week after the earthquake, the town - which is completely cut off from the outside world, with roads blocked by collapsed mountain sides, and the airport's runway ruptured - is yet to see any aid.

"We've heard that there are international charity organisations committed to come to help us, but we haven't seen them yet," Mr Pulupe said. "We only have the provincial government team trying to go around doing the assessments."

That's not unique to Tari. For much of the region affected along the Hela-Southern Highlands border, aid is only starting to trickle in and a picture of what the earthquake did is only starting to emerge.

The 7.5 earthquake of 26 February 2018 struck in Hela province, around 33 kilometres southwest of the provincial capital Tari.

The area around the earthquake's epicentre straddles the provinces of Hela and Southern Highlands provinces in PNG's remote Highlands. Photo: PNG National Disaster Centre

The number of casualties remains patchy, but as many as eighty deaths have been reported in areas surveyed so far, the Red Cross said. However, that toll could still climb further, as much of the hilly, jungle-covered region is still cut off.

Health services were struggling too, with medical centres having to perform surgeries in darkness, and already short-supplied clinics fast running out of supplies to treat the sick and wounded.

Rescue efforts have been hampered by landslides, which have wiped out roads and cellphone towers, while poor weather and runway damage has held back relief from the air.

Where the Tagari river use to run, Komo, Hela Province, PNG.

Where the Tagari river use to run, Komo, Hela Province, PNG. Photo: Bernard McQueen

Aerial surveys have showed sections of road crumpled by the earth's violence, while in other parts, asphalt has toppled down deep ravines. They've shown steep, green terrain scarred with large muddy landslides. In some areas, entire mountainsides have shunted forward, blocking rivers and, officials fear, burying villages.

Some 50-or-so kilometres away from Tari, in the Southern Highlands district of Ialibu Pangia, Melvin Levongo said in a phone interview from his home village that food was starting to become a critical issue there, too, with villagers foraging through the remnants of their food gardens. In stores, he said, the price of whatever remained had skyrocketed.

However, in Southern Highlands, aid was slowly starting to come in, with an Australian Hercules aircraft offloading supplies on Friday. But with the roads cut off, getting it to those who needed it most remained a massive challenge.

"The affected areas are really in the remote interior places so, you know, geographically it's going to be really challenging for the relief workers," Mr Levongo said. "They're planning on spreading the relief supplies via helicopter because landslides and all these things - road access is completely difficult."

PNG communities at risk of flooding following damning rivers by landslides triggered by 7.5 magnitude earthquake.

PNG communities at risk of flooding following damning rivers by landslides triggered by 7.5 magnitude earthquake. Photo: Barbara Lokes/OilSearchLtd

The Papua New Government has declared a state of emergency, offered a multi-million dollar relief package and deployed troops to the region. Neighbouring provinces have volunteered supplies and manpower, while aid agencies and the Australian government have also offered assistance.

The fuel company ExxonMobil, whose Liquefied Natural Gas project in Hela Province is PNG's largest revenue earner, said it has also donated US$1 million to the relief, as well as using experts, resources and helicopters it has there to help with the response.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the New Zealand Government was "deeply conscious" of the situation in PNG and had "offered assistance to the Government of Papua New Guinea."

"Our High Commission is working with Papua New Guinean authorities and aid agencies on the ground to identify how New Zealand can best assist," they said in a statement.

The Secretary-General of the Papua New Guinea Red Cross, Unvenama Rova, said roads were slowly starting to open up, and aid was - gradually - starting to trickle in. However, owing to the remote and rugged terrain, it could yet be some time before everywhere is reached and a full picture of the devastation emerges.

"We are still trying to work out the best way," said Mr Rova. "We have our Mt Hagen branch as our operations centre and we are mobilising volunteers from there. We will go one group to Tari, Hela Pronvince, and the other group to Southern Highlands."

For Isaac Pulupe and the stranded residents of Tari, that can't come soon enough.

"Let the world know that we are really in a very desperate need and Hela needs people," he said.