Cash-strapped PNG struggles to help quake’s hardest-hit

SYDNEY – Almost a month after a deadly earthquake, Papua New Guinea is struggling to get aid to desperate survivors, having allocated just a fraction of its relief funds, while a rent dispute left disaster officials briefly locked out of their offices.

The scale of the emergency is testing the finances and capacity of one of the world’s poorest countries, disaster and relief officials say, after the magnitude 7.5 quake rocked its remote mountainous highlands on February 26, killing 100 people.

Thousands of survivors have walked to remote airstrips and jungle clearings, awaiting helicopters bringing supplies of food, water and medicines, aid agencies and authorities say.

“To date, we do not have any money to do all the necessary things,” Tom Edabe, the disaster co-ordinator for the hardest-hit province of Hela, said by telephone from Tari, its capital.

“(The) government is trying to assist and have budgeted some money, but to date we have not received anything … we have only been given food, and non-food items supplied by other NGOs.”

Continuing aftershocks rattle residents, who have to collect water brought by daily rainstorms to ensure adequate supplies, Mr Edabe said.

“The biggest thing that people need, apart from food, is water,” said James Pima, a helicopter pilot and flight manager at aviation firm HeliSolutions in the Western Highlands capital of Mt. Hagen, about 170km from the disaster zone.

“They don’t have clean water to cook or drink … they are standing there staring. The expression on their faces is blank.”

His firm’s three helicopters fly relief missions “fully flat-out every day,” Mr Pima added.

The logistics problems wind all the way to PNG’s disaster centre, where officials told Reuters they had been locked out of their office in Port Moresby, the capital, for two days last week after the government missed a rental payment.

“That was correct, Monday and Tuesday,” a spokeswoman said.