When disaster strikes – Massive Earthquake 7.5 destroys Papua New Guinea

On the early morning of 26th February a massive earthquake of magnitude 7.5 struck PNG affecting the provinces of Southern Highlands, Hela and Western Highlands. The affected areas are largely mountainous and remote. The earthquake has claimed many lives with more than 50 deaths reported one week after the disaster. The exact numbers of deaths of those buried alive in landslides and rumbles are not known but estimated to have exceed hundreds.

An estimated 275,000 people live within 50km of the epicentre and experience frightening landslides and falling shelter and buildings. Approximately 325,000 people are estimated to have been displaced due to loss of basic needs for shelter, food and water. Immediate needs for survival include shelter, food and water, sanitation and life-saving health services. At least half of health facilities were damaged and became non-functional. Women, infants and children were the most affected as they struggled to get food, water and sanitation. More than 50% of rural health facilities and staffing homes have been flattened and buried under landslides. Some health workers are reported to be suffering from psychological trauma and post disaster depression.

The massive earthquake and destructive landslides caused severe destruction to homes, plantations, infrastructure, buildings, roads and bridges and cut off water and electricity. People were devastated while numerous strong aftershocks continued for at least a further week. Destroyed mining sites and gas plants posed the risks of potential toxic spills.

The government declared PNG in a state of emergency two days later. The last few weeks saw international aid flowing into the two most severely damaged provinces. Emergency responses to save lives were established but many deaths occurred unnoticed. Choppers are the main only means of transport to reach these remote communities. Villagers and communities are frustrated at the slowness of accessing food, water and essential health services. It will take a long time for people to sustain adequate food supplies and return to their usual routines. Outbreaks of food and water-borne diseases are likely to occur, while malnutrition from lack of food will surely affect small children.

Australia and New Zealand sent helicopters and planes to help deliver food, water and medicine to the remote region, where the government and aid agencies have been scrambling to reach villages stranded by landslides and collapsed roads.