Disaster ResponseNatural Environment

MAF responds to 7.6 magnitude earthquake in eastern PNG

16th September 2022

In the wake of an earthquake, which struck Markham Valley in eastern Papua New Guinea on Sunday 11 September, MAF has been medevacking injured people and undertaking aerial surveys in partnership with the UN, WHO and PNG government to assess the damage. We bring you the latest on the relief efforts…

The first earthquake, which struck at 9:46am local time on Sunday, has left at least nine people dead with many more missing or buried under landslides.

Its epicentre, Markham Valley in Morobe Province, is 67 kilometres from the town of Kainantu, but tremors were felt some 310 miles away in the capital Port Moresby, according to the US Geological Survey.

Morobe Province, Eastern Highlands and Madang Town are the worst affected areas according to the ‘Papua New Guinea Disaster Management Team’, which comprises of UN agencies, PNG’s National Disaster Centre and various NGOs.

These remote, mountainous areas make relief efforts impossible to execute by road.

Three hours after the first earthquake hit, MAF was airborne at 12:46pm undertaking aerial surveys to assess damage and to ascertain ‘immediate need’. This was initially hampered by dense cloud cover.

A second such flight took place on Monday 12 September revealing a number of landslides, which have damaged the region’s power grid causing a bush fire.

Internet cables and health centres have also been damaged along with major disruption to the Highlands Highway, which connects several of PNG’s main cities.

Such critical information gleaned from these flights – piloted by MAF’s Arjan Paas, Brad Venter and Tim Neufeld – are informing the UN’s disaster response.

Further aftershocks

Since the first earthquake, two smaller earthquakes (aftershocks) of 5 and 5.2 magnitude occurred hours later near the first epicentre of Markham Valley causing further damage, according to the US Geological Survey.

Over 450 houses have collapsed in Madang Town, Leron-Wantoat and Uni-Atzera, injuring around 30 people. More than 50 families have been displaced in Morobe Province and schools have been closed (source: PNG Disaster Management Team).

Many of the collapsed houses were ‘semi-permanent’ structures made from lightweight materials and elevated on wooden posts.

Immediate needs include emergency shelter, access to clean water, bedding, basic kitchen and household items, and psychosocial support for children.

At the University of Goroka, more than 1,600 boarding students are currently staying in classrooms or with relatives, after their multi-story dormitory was damaged. Some students are recovering from their injuries in hospital. The university has suspended classes for two weeks.

MAF medevacs the injured

On Monday, MAF medevacked a total of five people injured by landslides. Most of the casualties were flown from Mibu in Madang Province – 30km from the epicentre – to Saidor, so that they could receive medical care. Another patient was medevacked from Andakombe to Goroka. Injuries ranged from open wounds, damaged legs and a torso pierced by a broken branch.

117kg of food aid was also delivered from Goroka to Mibu.

Mibu Airstrip was only re-opened last October following substantial repairs to meet safety standards.

PNG’s ‘National Command Centre Response’ has warned residents about potentially more aftershocks and landslides. People living in the coastal areas, which could be at risk of tsunamis, are being urged to travel inland.

Fortunately, this latest earthquake and aftershocks have caused less damage than PNG’s 2018 earthquake, which struck Hela Province in western PNG claiming around 150 lives and displacing 20,000 people (source: UN).

MAF PNG’s country director Todd Aebischer, says:

‘This earthquake is much less severe than the 2018 quake that did so much damage. The 2018 earthquake occurred during the wet season when the ground was very susceptible to landslides.

‘This time, the ground has been quite dry, so it’s more stable. We are grateful that no injuries or major damage to MAF staff or property have been reported to date.’

Thrown in at the deep end

MAF PNG’s programme safety manager Dom Sant has been helping to coordinate MAF’s response, which includes assessing security and community damage reports from rural communities.

Having only moved to PNG in January this year, it’s the first disaster response Dom has been involved with:

‘I received an early call on Sunday 11 September on my emergency phone from our MAF base in Madang and was asked to take the lead on mapping communities that were affected by the earthquake.

‘We’ve been helping with aerial assessments close to the epicentre in Eastern Highlands Province. This is the first disaster I’ve supported since moving to PNG and I hope it will be my last!’

Dom Sant, MAF PNG’s programme safety manager

No MAF staff have been harmed, but MAF’s hostel in Aiyura, Eastern Highlands has sustained damage to water tanks, appliances and supplies.

MAF will continue to offer surveillance flights and medical assistance where required.