Officials in Vanuatu are still assessing the damage from last weekend’s Cyclone Hola. At least one person was killed by a falling tree. To the east, the government of Tonga extended the state of emergency that’s been in force for a month since Cyclone Gita caused widespread damage there. And more than a hundred people are reported dead from an earthquake that devastated the highlands of Papua New Guinea two weeks ago. We have more from Neal Conan in today’s Pacific News Minute.
Word of casualties has been slow to emerge because the 7.5 magnitude quake caused widespread damage to roads and bridges. And because powerful aftershocks continue to trigger landslides. That’s all delayed distribution of aid as well.
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill told local media that trucks have finally reached Tari, the capital of hard hit Hela province, and that the focus now is to set up water purification facilities. Supplies are being delivered to more remote areas by three CH-47 Chinook helicopters from Australia, which also sent in a C-130 Hercules transport plane packed with aid.
“The PNG Defense Force does not have these aircraft,” the Prime Minister said, “And we are grateful for that help.” He also thanked New Zealand, China and Israel, along with the two big oil and gas companies active in the area, Oil Search and ExxonMobil PNG.
Earthquakes are unusual in New Guinea’s highlands, and many were quick to blame drilling. The epicenter of the quake is in the middle of ExxonMobil’s gas fields. Prime Minister O’Neill said there was no proof in such claims, but announced that an independent team of experts from Australia would investigate.
Geoscience Australia, which conducted an earlier risk assessment, told ABC Australia Radio in a statement, “...the previous understanding of seismic hazard underestimated the risk.”