Five killed as powerful earthquake strikes Papua New Guinea

A 7.6 magnitude earthquake shook Papua New Guinea yesterday, damaging buildings, triggering landslides and killing at least five people.

The United States Geological Survey said the earthquake struck at a depth of 61km (38 miles), about 67km (41 miles) from the eastern town of Kainantu, at 9:45 on Sunday morning.

The quake rocked the newly-built five-star dormitories at the University of Goroka reports the PNG Post Courier, leaving around 7,600 students homeless and forcing PNG Power to shut down the country’s biggest dam at Yonki that generates and supplies power to Morobe, Madang and the Highlands region. Parts of Highlands Highway at Markham Valley also suffered damage.

At the UoG, the students rushed down the stairways and scurried out of the dormitories as the debris of brick blocks, metals and glasses fell around them, the ceilings and walls cracking and a section of one of the buildings’ roof falling down.

“The earthquake of whatever size it was has hit all our new dormitories to the very core of their foundations,” Dr Maninga said.

“We invite the structural engineering professionals to assess the damage before we make any serious decision.

“We will also enquire with the national geohazard centre if we are to expect another earthquake and of what magnitude.

PNG Power advised of a total power system outage in Morobe, Madang and the Highlands region following the earthquake. The power supplier confirmed reports of damages at the Ramu Hydro power station and switch yard and advised that their team would carry out a proper check before they could safely restore power supply to their clients.

In Yelia Local Level Government constituency of Obura-Wanenara district in Eastern Highlands Province, Kevin Kojompa, a teacher at the Yelia Primary School said staff houses were destroyed.

The National Disaster Centre acting director Martin Mose said he had not received a full report on the nationwide effects of the earthquake yet.

Local member of parliament Kessy Sawang said at least two people were killed in remote mountain villages, with four others airlifted to hospital in critical condition. In nearby Wau, Koranga Alluvial Mining said three miners were buried alive.

“There has been widespread damage,” said Sawang, adding a landslide had buried homes and “split” one village where people “lost their houses”.

The nation’s leader, James Marape, said the earthquake was “massive” and told people to be cautious, but said he expected the damage to be less than that from a 2018 earthquake and series of aftershocks, which killed an estimated 150 people.

The scale of the damage and number of casualties from Sunday’s earthquake was still unclear.

“National and provincial disaster agencies, as well as leaders, have been asked to assess the damage and injuries to people and attend to these as soon as possible,” Marape said.

The UN report said people had been injured by falling structures or debris, and there was damage to some health centres, homes, rural roads and highways.

Power infrastructure was damaged in affected areas, causing an outage across the Eastern Highlands.

Papua New Guinea residents took to social media sharing images and videos of cracked roads, damaged buildings and cars, and items falling off supermarket shelves.

Video of damage to a university in the eastern highland town of Goroka showed large cracks appearing in walls and window awnings falling during the earthquake.

Small aviation companies and missionary groups were involved in airlifting some of the injured across the rugged jungle landscape.

“It’s very difficult, the terrain, the weather. It’s challenging,” said Nellie Pumai of Manolos Aviation, which had transported one person out and was trying to return.

Locals in Lae and Madang, closest to the epicentre, said the shaking was much more vigorous than previous quakes.

“Very strong, everything was like sitting on a sea – just floating,” said Hivi Apokore, a worker at the Jais Aben Resort near Madang.

Earthquakes are common in Papua New Guinea, which sits on the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire”, a hotspot for seismic activity due to friction between tectonic plates.

A magnitude 7.5 earthquake rocked the country’s remote mountainous highlands in 2018, killing more than 100 people and damaging thousands of homes.

In neighbouring Indonesia in 2004, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami that killed 220,000 throughout the region.

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