Fears of rising PNG death toll after region’s ‘worst quake in century’

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 SYDNEY, March 4, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Local communities are struggling to cope with the aftermath of a major earthquake that hit Papua New Guinea’s remote highlands almost a week ago, reports said Sunday, amid fears of a rising death toll.

The highlands in the Pacific nation’s interior about 600 kilometres (373 miles) north-west of Port Moresby were struck by a 7.5-magnitude tremor early Monday, and also shaken by a series of strong aftershocks in subsequent days.

The government has declared a state of emergency and sent relief workers to the Southern Highlands, Western, Enga and Hela provinces, which have been hit by downed communications, landslides and sinkholes, and toppled homes and buildings.

“This was the biggest earthquake in a hundred years (in the highlands) and it spread 150 kilometres across the fault line,” humanitarian duty officer Darian Clark of the Australian High Commission (embassy) said in a statement Saturday.

“A number of urban settlements, as well as villages, have been affected, many in the form of landslides and landslips, which means that roads have been cut off, water contaminated, power knocked out and other widespread effects for the local people.”

Numerous communities have yet to be reached by aid workers and it was not known how badly they were affected, seismologist Mathew Moihoi of PNG’s Geophysical Observatory told AFP Sunday.

No official death toll has been released by the government, but various PNG media reports have cited local officials on the ground who spoke of dozens of casualties.

The PNG Post-Courier newspaper has collated unconfirmed reports of more than 50 dead from the initial quake.

“The figures (for the death toll) have been coming out from areas where there is access, but there might be areas which are not accessible and it is a little bit hard to get to those areas,” Moihoi said.

“There might be some casualties there, we just don’t know. It’s going to be a little bit difficult to get the figures at this stage.”

Local news website Loop PNG cited a local police officer as saying that starvation and looting were on the rise in the affected communities.

The situation was worsening on the ground every day, the website added Sunday, quoting local advocacy groups mobilising to help stricken communities.

“People are crying and they are shouting when they are calling us,” Cathy Alex from the Advancing PNG Women’s Network said as she pleaded for donations from the public.

“We can’t just sit and wait for the (government-pledged disaster funding of) 450 million kina (US$140 million).”

Besides the government’s aid efforts, oil and gas companies ExxonMobil and Oil Search, which operate in the area, have assisted relief and recovery efforts.

The Australian military said Saturday it had arrived in PNG and was distributing relief supplies and conducting aerial surveys of quake-hit areas.

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