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By Jeffrey Elapa in Port Moresby

More than 30 people are believed to have been killed in the massive 7.5 magnitude Papua New Guinean earthquake that hit Hela and Southern Highlands Provinces yesterday.

Provincial authorities say more than 300 mainly villagers have been injured and properties destroyed.

Although the communication network into the two provinces has been cut-off, reports through satellite by Hela Provincial Administrator William Bando said there had been unconfirmed reports of more than 30 deaths.

Sketchy reports indicated that more than 13 people have been reportedly killed in the Southern Highlands capital Mendi, while a further 18 people have also been reportedly killed in the most affected areas of Kutubu and Bosave.

The quake, reported widely by the world media, hit in the early hours at a relatively shallow depth of 25 kilometres.

Developers of the multi-million LNG project in Hela and Southern Highlands are preparing to evacuate non-essential staff because of this.

Bando said it was a severe natural disaster which had claimed the lives of many in the two provinces, creating sinkholes and landslides.

Flights cancelled
Electricity supply in the two provinces has been disrupted while flights have also been cancelled.

He said the Komo Airport was believed to have suffered damages to half of the runway.

Bando, who was to fly to Tari from Port Moresby, was also unable to leave because the airport was reportedly closed.

Unconfirmed reports from Mendi said that the earthquake was so powerful that people did not sleep, while there has been reports of landslides, landslips and sinkholes in several places and deaths.

The Department of Mineral Policy and Geohazard Management said the 7.5 magnitude earthquake was centered about 30km south of Tari and 40km northwest of Lake Kutubu, (in Bosave) Southern Highlands Province, at a depth of 25km.

It said that the earthquake occurred as a result of fault movements in the Papuan Fold and Thrust Belt, which runs parallel to the axial mountain range of PNG.

“There is potential for significant damage from this earthquake because of the large magnitude and shallow depth of the event. A number of aftershocks have occurred, and more are likely in the coming days,” department said.

“The largest of the aftershocks so far is M5.5. There is little possibility that this earthquake would have generated a tsunami.”

Series of aftershocks
Oil Search Limited, the developer of oil and gas developments in Hela and Southern Highlands, said in an email that the quake struck about 3.44am yesterday.

There had also been a series of aftershocks.

The company said its primary concern was the safety of its employees and contractors and that no injuries had been reported.

Oil Search said that as a precautionary measure and in order to assess any damage to facilities, its production operations in the PNG Highlands is in the process of being shutdown.

ExxonMobil PNG Ltd, the developer of the PNG LNG, also confirmed that the PNG LNG Project facility at Hides has also been safely shut down. It said that all its employees and contractors at its Hides facilities have been accounted for and are all safe.

“As a precaution, ExxonMobil PNG Limited has shut its Hides gas conditioning plant to assess any damages to its facilities,” the management said.

Meanwhile, Oil Search and ExxonMobil said they were also monitoring the impact on people in the local communities and would assist the relevant authorities, where possible.

Assessing damage
“We are continuing to assess damage to our facilities in Southern Highlands and Hela provinces. The Hides gas conditioning plant has been safely shut down and our wellpads have been shut in as a precaution until full assessments can be completed.

“Preliminary reports from the Hides Gas Conditioning Plant indicate the administration buildings, living quarters and the mess hall have sustained damage. Flights into the Komo airfield have also been suspended until we are able to survey the runway.

“The safety and security of our employees and contractors is top priority. Due to the damage to the Hides camp quarters and continuing aftershocks, ExxonMobil PNG is putting plans in place to evacuate non-essential staff.

“We are also concerned about the impact the earthquake is having on our nearby communities. Telephone communications have been impacted in the region, and we are working with aid agencies and our community partners to better understand damage in the local area,” ExxonMobil said in a statement.

The developers had a briefing with the department of Petroleum and Energy yesterday and big rivers like the Tagali and Hegego have been blocked and building up dams, threatening lives down stream in Kutubu and the Gulf Province.

The gas to electricity that powers Porgera gold mine is also said to be affected while the Ok Tedi mine has also reported to have been affected.

Infrastructure like roads and bridges have all been destroyed, cutting off traffic in the two provinces.

Disaster reports
However, National Disaster director Martin Mose said all reports on the overall damages should be ready by today when the government team flies in to access the situation, some 28 hours after the disaster.

Chief Secretary Isaac Lupari said the National Government has dispatched disaster assessment teams to parts of Southern Highlands and Hela following the earthquake.

“The National Disaster Centre is working with provincial authorities to assess any damage and impacts on service delivery in the area.

“The Papua New Guinea Defence Force has also been mobilised to assist with the assessment and the delivery of assistance to affected people, as well as the restoration of services and infrastructure.

“Information will be provided as this is made available from assessment teams in the area.

“As this assessment process is underway, it is important that people in the Southern Highlands and Hela be aware of the dangers of earthquake aftershocks. It is advisable to stay out of multi-story buildings, to be aware of the potential of landslides, and to be prepared to move to open ground in the event that an aftershock is felt,” Lupari said.

Jeffrey Elapa is a journalist with the PNG Post-Courier.

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