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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Hundreds feared dead in Papua New Guinea landslide

BANGKOK, THAILAND – NOVEMBER 18: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and Prime Minister James Marape of Papua New Guinea enter the APEC Economic Leaders Retreat on Balanced, Inclusive and Sustainable Growth in the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center on November 18, 2022 in Bangkok, Thailand. Thailand is hosting the APEC meetings this year, which will culminate in the leaders’ meetings which will run from Nov. 17 to 19. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)  (Lauren DeCicca)
By Victoria Kim and Christopher Cottrell New York Times

Unstable rubble and debris were complicating search and rescue efforts in rural Papua New Guinea on Saturday, a day after a massive landslide buried villages and killed at least three people. Local officials said the death toll was likely to be at least in the hundreds.

Nearly 4,000 people live in the three villages engulfed by the landslide early Friday, said Sandis Tsaka, the provincial administrator for Enga, which includes the affected area. He said the death toll was likely to be high because the landslide hit a densely populated area that is also a highly trafficked corridor.

“Our people will consider it of biblical proportions,” he said. “We are looking for all the help and support we can get to address the humanitarian disaster of proportions we’ve never seen in this part of the world.”

Prime Minister James Marape said in a voice message that while the toll had yet to be determined, the disaster could be the country’s biggest landslide.

“This year we’ve experienced prolonged and extraordinary rain in most parts of our country that has caused flood and also landslips,” he said. “It is a heavily populated village that experienced the entire village being submerged.”

Three bodies were pulled out of the rubble Friday, and five people, including a child, were treated for injuries, according to Tsaka.

The disaster struck around 3 a.m., catching most residents off guard and sending huge boulders, some larger than shipping containers, tumbling down. At least 60 homes were buried under as much as 20 feet of debris, Tsaka said. At least a 500-foot section of the Porgera Highway, the main thoroughfare connecting the area, was inundated, he said.

The landslide buried an area equivalent to about three or four soccer fields, said Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration’s office in Papua New Guinea. A humanitarian aid convoy, after some delays, reached the affected villages Saturday afternoon to deliver tarps and water, he said, though no food would arrive Saturday.

The villages are populated mostly by subsistence farmers and are in the highlands region of Papua New Guinea, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean north of Australia. The province has been afflicted in recent months by escalating deadly clashes between tribal groups.

The aid convoy was delayed by a blockade set up by one of the groups involved in the conflict, and was allowed through only after the military got involved, Aktoprak said, slowing relief efforts when time was critical. Daylight hours are getting shorter in the Southern Hemisphere, with the sun setting just before 6 p.m., he noted.

“Every minute that passes is basically shrinking our chances of reaching them alive,” he said.

Tsaka said the area was prone to smaller landslides, and in recent months, the weather had been continuously wet.

Heavy rain was forecast to continue pummeling the area in the coming days, further hampering rescue efforts. International organizations and the country’s defense forces were arriving to help, according to Tsaka.

Michael Main, an anthropologist who researches tribal violence in Papua New Guinea, said the country had been seeing a rapid increase in population, especially in resource-rich places like the landslide-affected area, which is near the Porgera gold mine. The country’s tropical highlands, with heavy rainfall, frequent tectonic activity and unstable geology, are prone to landslides, he said.

“Its villages are expanding, and there are simply more people and more houses spread across the landscape,” said Main, a researcher at the University of Melbourne’s Initiative for Peacebuilding. “So more people are going to be impacted by these events.”

President Joe Biden said in a statement Friday that the United States was ready to aid in rescue and recovery efforts. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong also said in a statement that her country was ready to respond to requests for assistance.

Vincent Pyati, president of the local Community Development Association, said the area was a transport node where many came from remote areas overnight to catch public motor vehicles, a popular method of transit, probably adding to the toll. He said there was also a drinking club popular with people from all over the district.

Pyati said at least 300 people were estimated to have been killed.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.