PNG Disasters

I visited PNG to discuss “emergency broadcasting.” As part of my preparation I built up a little knowledge about the disaster situation in that country.

PNG has about 7 million residents and a fantastic rate of population growth, but in places there is great poverty.

Emergencies are dealt with largely by provincial governments and responders, some of which are quite sophisticated, others are still developing.Communications are reasonable, although for the vast majority of people the web is too costly to access, so texting is widely used in the cities. Many villages have no access to reliable power, although the bigger centres are probabloy okay for most of the time.

The media is vibrant; the health sector has just been flooded with new cases after the Government made hospital visits free. I read a story saying next year the country will be introducing pensions for aged people with disabilities The extra money is coming from the mining development sector.


The principal disasters confronting the community of PNG are floods and cyclones, which each year result in a large number of people being displaced, a small number of injuries and occasional deaths, and devastation to agriculture and subsistence farming.

In addition PNG has five active and two dormant volcanoes.


PNG lies on the “Pacific Rim of Fire” and experiences earthquakes weekly in the mountain regions (circ 3.5-4.5 Richter scale), a few of which each year result in landslips which impact on local communication tracks roads and utilities. Occasionally higher magnitude earthquakes are recorded.

The seismic image map of PNG by the US Geological Survey (Below) shows probable recurrence of seismic activity.

There have been 18 earthquakes greater than magnitude 6.6 (When damage and deaths are thought likely to begin to occur) since 1995[1] but only two resulted in fatalities (total, 6 people).


There is great fear in PNG that tsunami will impact on coastal communities. They are known within oral history but are extremely rare. Most catastrophic tsunami throughout the world are generated by earthquakes greater than magnitude 7, off shore, however the two tsunami which created great damage in PNG were not. The Aitape tsunami (1998) was created when an onshore earthquake created a land slump under the ocean, with much damage caused because of the unique canyon nature of the off shore area funnelling water across the coast.

The other tsunami was (1888) was generate buy a collapsing volcano.

The common fear grows from the tsunami which impacted on the coastal communities of Aitape region in July 1998 10-25 minutes after a magnitude 7 earthquake. At least 2,183 people were killed, thousands injured, about 9,500 homeless and about 500 missing as a result of a tsunami generated in the Sissano area.

Maximum wave heights were estimated at 15 meters. Several villages were completely destroyed and others extensively damaged.

The tsunami comprised three waves, each estimated to be about 4m high. The second of the three waves rose to a height of 10-15 m above sea level after it had crossed the shoreline and caused most damage. The greatest damage was in the villages of Arop and Warapu which were removed almost without trace, leaving only the concrete foundation slabs of churches and classrooms.

The Aitape tsunami was the worst natural disaster in the history of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, and compares with the catastrophic eruption of Mount Lamington in January 1951, in which 3000 people were killed. Since the beginnings of written history in this region, the Aitape tsunami is exceeded in impact by only the 1888 tsunami, triggered by the collapse of Ritter Island volcano.

Recent tsunami in the Solomon Islands (6 Feb, 2013) which killed 10 people and displaced 6000 others[2], also generated great fear that similar events can occur in PNG, and the Japanese tsunami of March 11, 2011, created small marine waves that washed up across the entire Pacific, including onshore in PNG, but there was no damage.


Papua New Guinea has the most active volcanoes in the South West Pacific. Its most active volcanoes include Manam, Karkar, Lamington, Langila, Ulawun, Rabaul and Bagana.

In 1951, within four to five days of the initial signs of unrest, Mount Lamington in Oro Province erupted, killing 3,000 people.

UNDP, RVO and officials in PNG’s Northern Province have worked on contingency plans for Mount Lamington. An estimated 40,000 people would have to be evacuated if it erupts again, and some of the communities have no roads.

The Rabaul Volcanological Observatory (RVO) has been funded by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) since 1995 after the Rabaul volcano erupted and destroyed most of the town. It monitors eight of the country’s most active, high risk volcanos and receives daily reports and sends people for closer monitoring if there are reports of unrest.

RVO, working with provincial disaster officers, also conducts awareness programmes with populations around high-risk volcanoes, including Lamington, Ulawun, Pago, Karkar, Manam, Langila, Garbuna and Bagana.

Cyclones and floods

Recent disasters have included floods in April 2014 caused by Tropical Cyclone Ita (which killed 26 people in the Solomon Islands and reached the Australian mainland category 5). Widespread flooding in the islands of Milne Bay displaced 15,000 people.

Other major recent events include January 2013[3]: Heavy rainfall since the begin of the cyclone season in November 2012 has resulted in floods and landslides affecting homes, food gardens, water sources and infrastructure in several provinces of Papua New Guinea. Estimates from a range of sources indicate that up to 35,000 people might be affected.

Also in May 2013 it was reported by the aid agency Oxfam the flooding situation in Papua New Guinea’s East Sepik province reached “crisis point.” Seven people were confirmed dead and about 11,500 people have been affected by flooding along the Sepik River.[4]

Also in January 2013 the Red Cross reported[5] 27,000 flood-affected people in Papua New Guinea’s Oro Province remain in desperate need of basic items like food and clean drinking water. This was flooding which started in November 2012.

On May 25, 2010 it was reported[6] an estimated 20,000 people in remote parts of East Sepik Province, northwestern Papua New Guinea, were affected by floods – the worst in 40 years – along the Sepik River. It was added in the report that “residents have been able to sustain themselves with minimum levels of outside support thanks to traditional coping mechanisms.”

Worst affected were Angoram, Ambunti and Wosara-Gowi districts

Health  epidemics

The World Health Organisation reports[7] PNG has the worst health status in the Pacific region and ranks 153rd of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, worse than Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Tuberculosis, malaria and other communicable diseases cause 62% of deaths nationwide.

Only 33% of rural people have access to clean water, a major factor in the 2009 cholera outbreak that affected 14,000 people (more than 50 deaths) while diarrhoea is the seventh bigger killer and a measles outbreak in 2014 was reported as “an epidemic.”

Disaster information

Local news outlets in PNG report in an ad hoc way on disasters and emergencies. The PNG National Broadcasting Corporation provides consistent coverage at times, but is not always able to provide useful information to enable the community to prepare, or warnings which will enable it to respond as a disaster unfolds. It has a project in place to rectify this.

Technically NBC is in a position to respond better with warnings, alerts and comprehensive coverage.

During the cholera epidemic NBC arranged with the Department of Health to broadcast public service announcements.









Tsunami warnings in Washington State, USA

“We set off 54 sirens today” said a quietly pleased Robert Purdom from the Washington State Emergency Operations Centre in Camp Murray on the day of the great “Shake out” the bi-annual earthquake drill practiced by millions of Californians for the past few years, and now hundreds of thousands of people from a dozen other US states and even Canada, Italy and New Zealand.

The sirens are one of the principle tools designed to alert the community to a tsunami. And the threat is very real. The western states lie on a variety of fault lines which are quite active. In written history of the North America region there have been numerous very damaging earthquakes and accompanying tsunami. But the alert system now is based on an event which occurred at 9pm, January 26, 1700. There are no written records in the US of this earthquake, but there are in Japan.

“We had a Magnitude 9 rupture of the Cascadia fault line at 9pm on January 26,  1700,” says  John Schelling, the Earthquake/Tsunami/Volcano Program Manager. “We know the exact time and date from historical records in Japan. The tsunami washed up in Japan the next day, without warning and flooded fields and washed away homes. They called it the “Orphan Tsunami” as they knew it wasn’t caused by an earthquake in Japan.

 An earthquake of that magnitude almost certainly will cause a tsunami along the American coast . The records from tree rings show the Orphan tsunami submerged great areas of coast, and stopped the trees growing. Washington State is preparing its warning system for another event, with the belief they need people to respond within 30 minutes or less.

Chris Utzinger points to the earthquake resistant piles the Washington EOC is built on. The building will move as though it was on water.

The warning system is based around getting quality advice about the tsunami, and then using a variety of means to alert residents and emergency agencies. Local familiarisation and training is critical to the success of the system. “We were pleased that we had 700,000 people register to participate in our first Great Earthquake Shake Out” says John. But we hope for many more next year.”

 If an earthquake occurs and generates a tsunami the warning system will be activated.

 The US Pacific or Alaskan Tsunami monitoring centres operated by The National Weather Service,  will generate a report, which is immediately public.

The report will be received at the Washington State Emergency Operations Centre, (EOC) which is responsible for alerting all emergency and response agencies and organisations which are likely to be affected. There is one nuclear power plant in the state.


 Simultaneously the EOC will activate the siren system.

“We have about 100 phrases pre-programmed onto a voice chip and  the sirens can be programmed to announce anything that the voice chip has available, but we’ve only ever activated it from the EOC for a tsunami siren test” says Telecommunications Field Engineer Robert Purdom. “Each event consists of voice recording as well as the siren sound. We will generate the alerts  every few minutes for about 40 minutes.

But although the sirens are tested regularly, they are not considered effective without explanation, or context.

“Every time the siren sounds there must be a combination of siren and voice material,” says John Scheling, Earthquake Program Manager (Mitigation and Recovery)
” We know a siren alone wont make people change their behaviour.”

Tsunami warning sign on Santa Monica beach, Cal, USA

  The announcement begins with the heart stopping words: ”This is not a drill.”

AHAB: All Hazards Alert Broadcasting siren, used for tsunami alerts in Washington State, USA

“The sirens are for outdoor use only,” says John Schelling. “They are for people on the beach and in the streets. They won’t be heard indoors, so people have to be aware they might not hear the sirens when a tsunami alert is generated.”

 It’s expected the police will drive through towns and neighbourhoods using loud hailers attached to their vehicles warning people of the tsunami.

 In addition the “Emergency Alert System” will carry the tsunami warnings to emergency broadcasters, including radio, TV, and digital platforms, and US phone carriers will activate their alerts to mobile devices using CMAS – the Commercial Mobile Alert System.

 If the electricity and land lines are damaged by the earthquake, each siren can be activated locally by a county or city emergency agency professional via VHF or UHF radio. 

 But the awareness messages stress that people must not wait for an alert. “The ground shaking, that’s the warning” says John. “Our messages are straightforward and each has a call to action: “If the ground starts shaking, you run. If you see the sea receding, you run.If you hear a siren, you run.”

The population is expected to seek higher ground, with awareness plans in place to try to raise understanding that the public should not  expect to be able to use roads. “An earthquake is likely to damage roads. We expect people will walk or run to higher ground,” says John. The Mayor of Long Beach, which is a marine spit built at water level and with no nearby hills, says “goodness knows which way the warning signs will be pointing after an earthquake.”

Washington State is trying a Japanese idea:  “vertical evacuation.” This can include towers, buildings and berms. Vulnerable communities are encouraged to become involved in considering these developments, drawing up plans and seeking federal funding.

“The community is asked if they would like a “vertical evacuation plan” and where they would like the hill or high ground to be built,” says John. This called “Project Safe Haven” and it is an attempt to get the community thinking what kind of structure might help them survive a tsunami.

 It might be a berm, reinforced dirt structure, a little like a big river levee, that can be built close to population centres. They could be 10 metres high or more, and will cost  $250,000 – to $1 million each.  They are an active feature of Japanese tsunami response.

Engaging the whole community in its design and placement results in widespread understanding of what the berm is for; and solid community buy-in. A berm could wrap around a sporting field and create new and useful lines of visibility or it could create an amphitheatre for public events in a community.

But it’s still just a concept: “No vertical evacuation structures exist yet, so we are hoping to build the first one in the U.S. in coming years. Additionally, funding is not yet available, but we hope to use a combination of federal, state, and local funds to implement the results developed by each community.” It’s ambitious,m but the issue calls for an open mind.

“The siren towers cost about $50,000 each, and the cost is shared between state and local counties.” says John.

 The Federal Emergency Management Agency in the US has tried to evaluate the cost of natural hazards. In addition to the infrastructure costs, it has discovered that each death from natural hazard results in costs of about $ 5 million. A few hundred thousand dollars for some sirens, and a million or so for a berm, pales into insignificance if they save hundreds or thousands of people.