As the death toll from last Monday’s 7.5 magnitude earthquake in Papua New Guinea rose to 101 overnight, rescue efforts are slowly picking up pace in two of the country’s worst affected provinces.
It has been 10 days since the earthquake struck, the petroleum rich, Hela and Southern Highlands provinces. But statistics of the human cost have been difficult to gather.
Hampered by bad weather, the slow release of funding and resources, assessment teams in the provinces, only began flying into the stricken areas four days after the quake.
Dr. Tana Kiak, who heads the small medical team of three has been flying in and out of the affected areas. His main task has been to certify the deaths and treat the injured.
“We could have been on the ground earlier. But we didn’t have coppers and resources. But it is good that we are now getting into those places.”
The Hela Medical team has, so far treated, more than 200 people with both serious and minor injuries.
On Wednesday morning, an Oil Search chopper that ferried Dr. Kiak’s team into another village, helped to transport two injured people hurt during the quake. No deaths.
In neighbouring Southern Highlands, Provincial Administrator, Thomas Eluh, said the current recorded death toll of 45 still stands and that the first lot of relief supplies are being flown in to Pimaga where the community has set up a care centre.
The Royal Australian Air Force, Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF) and Oil Search were among the first to begin transporting relief supplies into villages.
The Papua New Guinea Defence Force yesterday deployed 70 soldiers. An Australian Hercules C130 flew them in to Moro and Mt. Hagen from Port Moresby. Their main task will be to provide security and help deliver relief supplies.
When we met the contingent in Mt. Hagen, Major Francis Vitata, said included in the team are an additional 10 medical personnel who will assist in treating the injured on site.
In Timu village, Komo-Magarima District in Hela Province, four bodies were recovered three days after the landslip. Another family of seven lies buried under tons of rock and soil. Villagers armed with machetes and spades have little hope of finding the bodies. Eleven people died here.
“We found the mother and her baby… her older daughter… we found them there after three days,” said Timu villager, Ando Tangiato as he points to a spot in the landslip.
The haunting wails of two elderly man pierce the silence of the valley as they walk over the landslip. The children stand expressionless on what used to be their village.
“We planted flowers on the places where we dug,” says a young man who had been digging since the landslip happened. “This is now a grave site. We can’t find them.”
At Huiya village, near the epicenter of the quake, more than 2000 people have gathered waiting for help. Missionary Aviation Fellowship, flew in supplies and took the injured to hospital.
Traditionally, people in the Hela province, do not congregate in large villages. But the earthquake has forced them to gather in unusually large numbers at schools and mission stations.
This has prompted local politicians to encourage voluntary migration into areas close to stations like Huiya where a church, school and airstrip are located.
“It is difficult to administer a province like Hela when you have people scattered in small hamlets in inaccessible areas,” said Tari-Pori MP and Papua New Guinea’s Finance Minister, James Marape.
“I’m saying it would be better if they moved in closer so that disaster management in future will be easier to manage.”