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The death toll is expected to climb following a 7.5 magnitude earthquake that struck Papua New Guinea early Monday morning. By February 28, at least 20 people, including four children, were reported dead, with the fatalities largely due to landslides triggered by the quake.

A man views a house that collapsed in a strong earthquake, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, in Halagoli, Hela Province, Papua New Guinea. Severe damage after Monday's powerful 7.5 magnitude earthquake in Papua New Guinea is hindering efforts to assess the destruction, although officials fear dozens of people may have been injured or killed. (Jerol Wepii via AP)
A man views a house that collapsed in a strong earthquake, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, in Halagoli, Hela Province, Papua New Guinea. (Jerol Wepii via AP)

The landslides have made it exceedingly difficult for rescuers to access the most affected regions and multiple aftershocks have struck, including one measured at 6.3 magnitude.

The earthquake damaged phone networks, caused widespread power losses, and blocked roads. In the Hela province, a police station, court house, hospital, and multiple private residences were reported to have been destroyed. Rivers across the affected region silted up and dammed, causing concern about future flooding, and drinking water sources are inundated by dirt and debris.

Southern Highlands Governor William Powi described the earthquake as causing “catastrophic havoc and destruction.”

Volunteers from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies remain on standby to help with recovery efforts. The Natural Disaster Centre is tasked with assessing the extent of the damage by ground and helicopter in areas blocked off due to landslides. However, a cloudy morning on February 28 made it difficult for rescue teams to assess the extent of the damage by air, and hampered efforts to distribute aid. 

Extensive damage to residential and administrative buildings at an ExxonMobil natural gas plant and its processing units resulted in the evacuation of non-essential workers. The plant, which handles up to 1 billion cubic feet of gas per day and is Papua New Guinea’s largest export earner, was initially completely cut off from all communications. By Tuesday it was still unknown how long the plant would stay closed, and how many workers had been evacuated.

ExxonMobil’s Australian partner, Oil Search, also halted production at its Papua New Guinea oil and natural gas plant following the quake. The company said that it will take a week to assess the extent of the damage to its operations. Additionally, a major gold plant and large mining center have reported power outages and infrastructural damage.

The deadly landslides occurred largely in sparsely populated areas, and a tsunami was not triggered by the quake. In 1998, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake occurred near Aitape, a small town on the north coast of Papua New Guinea, which triggered a large undersea landslide that led to the formation of a a major tsunami. As a result of the earthquake and tsunami, over 2,000 people died, several villages in the north-west region were completely destroyed, and 9,500 people were left homeless.

Following the destruction, several villages moved their buildings farther back from the sea during reconstruction. Unfortunately, other vulnerabilities remained; although researchers from the University of Papua New Guinea called for improved escape routes and warning systems for tsunamis, some villages remain without access roads and there is still no disaster communications plan for the country.

Both the 1998 earthquake and Monday’s earthquake highlight the importance of having emergency communications plans. As Papua New Guinea is located in the Ring of Fire, a volcanic and tectonic hot-spot in the Pacific, it is no stranger to devastating earthquakes.

“Can we have early warning systems within our vulnerable sites…can our provincial governments deal with it, can our national governments deal with this?” Professor Chalapan Kaluwin of the University of Papua New Guinea’s School of Natural and Physical Sciences said in an interview with EMTV News.

The government should invest in infrastructure that can withstand the natural disasters that Papua New Guinea is prone to, he stressed.

Sources and Further Reading:

At least 20 dead after 7.5-magnitude earthquake hits Papua New Guinea – CNN

Papua New Guinea earthquake: At least 14 killed amid landslides – BBC News

Papua New Guinea officials say whole villages flattened by deadly quake – Reuters

PNG earthquake: Southern Highlands residents on edge as aftershocks rattle region – ABC Net

At least 14 dead in Papua New Guinea quake; ExxonMobil shuts LNG plan – Reuters

Exxon Shuts Papua New Guinea Output to Inspect Quake Damage – Bloomberg

The Aitape 1998 tsunami: Reconstructing the event from interviews and field mapping. – NOAA

Preliminary Earthquake Report – USGS

Learning from the Aitape Tsunami – Geology Department, University of Papua New Guinea

Independent State of Papua New Guinea Country Report – National Disaster Centre Papau New Guinea