Story by Stephanie Ernandes
Video by Chad Owens and Stephanie Ernandes
In the early morning hours of the 26th of February 2018, the Southern Highlands of PNG were rocked by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake. Since then there have been approximately 150 earthquakes recorded with a magnitude of 4.0 or greater, with countless smaller tremors. This seismic activity has brought havoc including mud slides, ruined gardens, and displaced villages. There is a widespread lack of basic necessities such as food, water, shelter, medicine, clothing, blankets, mosquito nets, and cooking pots.
One of the major effects of the earthquake has been that people have traveled from bush areas into the larger villages that have airstrips to seek refuge. An airstrip is a remote village’s connection to the outside world and people want to be there where the aid arrives. Food, clothing, and news of the outside world arrive by helicopters and small planes. In addition, medical help, both basic supplies as well as evacuations for life threatening emergencies comes and goes via the airstrip.
Albert is a Papuan New Guinean who lives in a village with one of these airstrips. He shared that inhabitants of seven villages located in the bush surrounding Huya have come to stay in their town, bringing their numbers from 750 to between 1200 – 1300. This stretches their capacity to provide food and shelter. Albert pointed to a large mountain nearby with its face missing, explaining that they’d lost 11 people in the landslide. Local men have been searching but found only two people to bury. They cannot find the other nine.
“Fear is one of the biggest things affecting the people now,” shared Erik Lofgren of the SIL PNG Aviation Department. “There is fear to go back to the gardens because they are afraid they’ll get stuck out in the bush or fear that their houses will fall on their families while they are away. All these continued tremors, even though they may not have a physical effect on people, still have psychological effects. When a tremor happens in the middle of the night everyone jumps out of bed and runs outside to wait for it to stop. Some people have not had a normal night’s sleep for weeks.” One way SIL and others would like to help is with trauma healing.
The four villages where SIL serves that are closest to the epicentre are Walagu, Huya, Bosavi, and Dodomona. SIL was able to transport men from the Rural Airstrip Agency into Huya via helicopter to survey their airstrip, which was closed to due to earthquake damage. Although it will need future repairs, they were able to re-open it so aid supplies could be delivered.
SIL has been working together with other organizations such as MAF, Adventist Aviation, and New Tribes to bring in supplies. Since the earthquake, SIL Aviation has brought in 5200 Kilos of rice, 10 temporary water collection systems, and 250 cases of tuna, among other things. They have also delivered supplies donated by other organizations and local churches, including clothing and tools for rebuilding. SIL has picked up and delivered large amounts of garden vegetables donated by other villages that heard about the tragedy and wanted to help. Medical evacuations have been part of the way SIL has helped as well.
“When faced with a crisis like this, your natural inclination is to help, and that is exactly what our community has done. As this event unfolded we realized quickly that other organizations were more adept at delivering supplies and handling donations and so we’re thankful for our partnership with them.” said Chad Owens the chief communication officer for SIL PNG. “Leadership deliberated over what specific skillsets SIL PNG had to offer this victims of this crisis. It came to light that we had people experienced in trauma healing training. Since training is one of our core values, we have begun putting together trauma healing workshops and are currently working through the logistics of helping people in that way.”
Amid the sorrow and suffering, it has been awesome to see various organizations, local government, Papua New Guinean villages and individuals pulling together to help with the earthquake relief.