SYDNEY — Communication blackouts and blocked roads hampered rescue efforts on Wednesday as Papua New Guinea struggled to assess the damage from a massive earthquake which has forced oil and gas fields to close in a blow to the economy.
The 7.5-magnitude tremor struck 90 km south of Porgera in the Pacific nation’s mountainous Enga province early Monday, with aftershocks continuing to rumble through the rugged region.
Local media reported that aerial surveys of the worst-hit areas showed bridges and infrastructure destroyed, along with private homes, while images revealed large cracks in the ground.
Some roads were blocked by landslides and sinkholes, while others had collapsed in places.
With communications and access impaired, conflicting details emerged of the toll and extent of the damage.
The PNG Post-Courier newspaper on Tuesday said more than 30 people may have died, but on Wednesday it reported that only 14 victims had been confirmed, in the Southern Highlands and Hela province.
All were killed when their houses collapsed as they slept, it said.
The PNG police said in a statement it understood more than 20 lives had been lost. No official government death toll has been provided.
Assessment teams were at work, with the military mobilized to help restore services.
Australia said it had sent a transport plane to conduct aerial surveillance and provide logistical support to the PNG Defense Force after a request by Port Moresby.
“We are saddened to hear reports of lives lost and many people being injured,” said Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
“Given the challenging terrain and remoteness of the area, we expect that the extent of the damage will become clearer in coming days.”
Hela deputy administrator Eddie Yuwi told The National newspaper the province resembled a war zone.
“Within the periphery of Tari town, we have all the roads affected, buildings destroyed, we have a number of casualties which are yet to be established,” he said.
“We have millions of kina (local currency) worth of property destroyed. We have people buried by debris, landslides.”
The quake also impacted Indonesia’s Papua with a handful of buildings, including a mosque and a school, damaged, although no casualties were reported, authorities said.
Yuwi added that a large crack had opened up at Komo airport, which services crucial gas fields.
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill tried to reach Hela on Tuesday but poor weather forced his helicopter to turn back.
Impoverished PNG’s economy is heavily dependent on its natural resources and he said the temporary shut down of oil and gas fields in the area would have serious repercussions.
“The closure of the oil fields and the gas fields is a concern to every one of us,” he told reporters, adding that the country’s National Executive Council would meet on Wednesday to work out a plan of action.
“It will have a huge impact on our economy, but we will work with experts to see if we can get them operational as quickly as possible.”
O’Neill added that the government was getting regular reports from ExxonMobil, the operator of the gas fields, and from Australian-listed exploration company Oil Search.
Oil Search has demobilized non-essential staff as it checks for damage at its wells and production facilities to determine whether it is safe to resume operations.