Papua New Guinea: Fears of thousands missing after landslide

Video explanation, Papua New Guinea: Many fear they have been killed in a landslide

  • author, Francis Mao
  • Role, BBC News

There are fears the number of people missing after a deadly landslide in Papua New Guinea could reach into the thousands, a government agency said.

The acting director of the country’s National Disaster Center said in a message that more than 2,000 people were feared to have been buried alive in Friday’s disaster.

However, it was difficult to determine an exact casualty figure and estimates varied widely, as rescue efforts were hampered by rubble 10 meters (32 feet) deep in some places and a lack of adequate equipment.

Less than 12 bodies have been recovered so far, while the United Nations estimated the number of missing people at 670.

A mountainside collapse early Friday morning destroyed a crowded village in Inga province, with damage extending nearly a kilometer, observers reported.

About 3,800 people were living in the area before the disaster struck.

Luciti Lasso Mana’s letter said the damage was “extensive” and that it had “caused a significant impact on the economic lifeline of the country.”

Prime Minister James Marape expressed his condolences and ordered the country’s defense forces and emergency agencies to head to the area, about 600 kilometers northwest of the capital, Port Moresby.

But local residents in the affected village of Kaokalam say they are still waiting for officials to intervene in larger rescue operations.

One resident, Yvette Campo, said she believed many of her family members were trapped under the rubble and debris.

She told Reuters news agency: “I have eighteen members of my family buried under the rubble and the soil I am standing on. There are so many family members in the village that I cannot count them.”

“Thank you to everyone who came to help us. But I can’t recover the bodies, so I stand here helpless.”

A community leader who visited the site told the BBC that locals felt they were left to fend for themselves. They were using shovels and their bare hands to try to dig people out.

“It’s been about three to four days now but [many] The location of the bodies has not yet been determined. “The landslide is still covering them and people are finding it very difficult to extract them, and they are calling on the government to provide support and assistance,” Ignace Nyimbo told BBC NewsHour programme.

However, a provincial police official told the BBC that he saw soldiers arriving at the scene, and were trying to remove rocks to try to free those trapped.

Acting regional police chief, Martin Kelly, described these efforts as risky, because removing car-sized boulders and other large barriers threatens more rockslides.

“Digging is very difficult at the moment because we are worried about more landslides and deaths – so locals are only digging from where they can see that it is safe. We are trying to identify where we can see people buried.” He said.

He had visited the site several times since Friday’s collapse and claimed the voices of survivors could still be heard calling for help under the rubble.

Local media reported that a couple was recovered alive from under the rocks. They survived because their house fell on the edge of a landslide.

Local NBC reported that they were rescued after rescue workers heard their cries for help.

The remaining residents are being evacuated as the area remains extremely dangerous with more rain expected.

“The ground is also quite unstable at the moment and is at risk of causing further landslides,” said Justine McMahon, country coordinator for CARE Australia, one of the humanitarian aid agencies on the ground.

“We have decided to stay out for the time being to allow authorities time to properly assess the situation to conduct rescue and recovery operations.”

Earlier, an official with the United Nations migration agency in the country described to the BBC the difficulties surrounding the rescue operation.

The International Organization for Migration’s Serhan Okprak said there were a number of challenges facing teams trying to recover bodies, including the reluctance of some grieving relatives to allow heavy machinery near their loved ones.

Instead, he added, “people use digging sticks, shovels, and large agricultural forks to dig up bodies buried under the soil.”

Debris resulting from a landslide, which includes large rocks, trees, and displaced soil.

Crews at the scene also said rescue efforts were being hampered by extensive damage to the only road leading into the city. Ms McMahon said the landslide caused damage about 200 meters (650 feet) long.

The landslide occurred on Mount Mongalo in the Inga Highlands in the north of the island nation.

Local officials and journalists attributed the mountain’s collapse to weeks of heavy rain and other wet conditions in the area.

With reports from Tiffany Turnbull in Sydney

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