Pope vows no more cover ups on sexual abuse in letter to Catholics

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis delivers a speech after a meeting with Patriarchs of the churches of the Middle East at the St. Nicholas Basilica in Bari, southern Italy July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis, facing sexual abuse crises in several countries, wrote an unprecedented letter to all Catholics on Monday, asking each one of them to help root out “this culture of death” and vowing there would be no more cover-ups.

In a highly personal letter addressed to “the people of God,” Church language for all members, the pope appeared to be launching an appeal for all Catholics to face the crisis together and not let it tear the Church apart.

The Catholic Church in the United States, Chile, Australia, and Ireland – where the pope is making a two-day visit this weekend – are reeling from crises involving sexual abuse of minors. Numerous surveys have pointed to plummeting confidence in the Church in those countries and elsewhere.

In his letter, the pope referred to the suffering endured by minors due to sexual abuse at the hands of a “significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.”

The Vatican said it was the first time a pope had written to all of the world’s some 1.2 billion Catholics about sexual abuse. Past letters on sexual abuse scandals have been addressed to bishops and faithful of individual countries.

“We have realized that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death,” he said.

Quoting a Gospel passage that says “If one member suffers, all suffer together,” Francis added:

“(Those words) forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.”

“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the

gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” Francis wrote.

Advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse expressed disappointment. “More actions, less words,” said Anne Barrett-Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a U.S.-based resource center that tracks cases of clerical abuse worldwide.

“He needs an effective discipline process for bishops and religious superiors who are known to have enabled abuse,” she said.

Last week a grand jury in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania released the findings of the largest-ever investigation of sex abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church, finding that 301 priests in the state had sexually abused minors over the past 70 years.

CRYING OUT TO HEAVEN

He acknowledged that “the heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept

quiet or silenced”.

“Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated,” he said.

He also acknowledged that the implementation of a zero tolerance had been “delayed” in some places.

Victims groups have said that while new policies have been put into place in several countries to alert civil authorities about cases of abuse, the pope still needed to do more to hold accountable bishops who covered it up, mostly by moving priests from parish to parish.

In his first direct response to the U.S. grand jury report, Francis said that while most cases it listed “belong to the past,” it was clear that the abuse cited “was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced”.

Last month, Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., and one of the U.S. Church’s most prominent figures, stepped down as a cardinal after accusations that he abused two minors about 50 years ago and later abused adult seminarians.

He was believed to be the first cardinal to lose his red hat in nearly a century and the first ever for alleged sexual abuse.

In May, all 34 of Chile’s bishops offered their resignation to the pope over a widening sexual abuse crisis there. He has so far accepted five of the resignations.

(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin, editing by Steve Scherer, Richard Balmforth)

Firefighters battle to save communities from epic California fire

FILE PHOTO: A firefighter knocks down hotspots to slow the spread of the River Fire (Mendocino Complex) in Lakeport, California, U.S. July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Fred Greaves/File Photo

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Crews battling the second-largest wildfire ever recorded in California fought on Monday to keep flames from descending a ridge into foothill communities, as reinforcements arrived from as far away as Alaska.

The Mendocino Complex Fire, made up of two separate conflagrations that merged at the southern tip of the Mendocino National Forest, had burned 273,664 acres (110,748 hectares) as of Monday morning and was still growing, on track to potentially become the largest in state history.

“Unfortunately, they’re not going to get a break anytime soon,” National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Hurley said of firefighters who had cut buffer lines around 30 percent of the blaze as of Monday. “It’s pretty doggone hot and dry, and it’s going to stay that way.”

Hurley said some temperatures could reach 110 degrees (43 Celsius) in Northern California over the next few days with 15-mile-per-hour (24 kph) winds fanning the flames. Environmentalists and some politicians say the uptick in the intensity of the state’s wildfire season may be linked in part to climate change.

The Mendocino Complex, which has destroyed 75 homes and forced thousands to flee, is the largest of eight major wildfires burning out of control across California, prompting U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday to declare a “major disaster” in the state.

“California wildfires are being magnified made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

A total of nearly 3,000 people were fighting the flames, including firefighters from Arizona, Washington, and Alaska.

Some 200 soldiers from the 14th Brigade Engineer Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, have also been called in to help in one of the most destructive fire seasons on record.

On Sunday, 140 fire managers and specialists from Australia and New Zealand underwent special training and were outfitted with safety gear at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise before being deployed to battle fires in the Pacific Northwest and California.

Crews battling the Mendocino Complex on Monday were focusing on keeping flames from breaking through fire lines on a ridge above the foothill communities of Nice, Lucerne, Glen Haven, and Clearlake Oaks, said Tricia Austin of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“If it were to be carried outside of those lines they have on the ridge, it could sweep down into those communities, that’s what we’re trying to prevent,” Austin said.

Elsewhere in California, the two-week-old Carr Fire on Saturday claimed the life of 21-year-old apprentice lineman Jay Ayeta, who died when his vehicle crashed as he worked with crews in dangerous terrain in Shasta County, according to PG&E corporation.

He was the seventh person killed in that blaze, which has scorched more than 160,000 acres (64,750 hectares) in the scenic Shasta-Trinity region north of Sacramento.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Jonathan Allen in New York, Laura Zuckerman in Pinedale, Wyoming and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sandra Maler)

Record number of U.S. Marines to train in Australia in symbolic challenge to China

FILE PHOTO - U.S. Marines aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship stand in formation during a ceremony marking the start of Talisman Saber 2017, a biennial joint military exercise between the United States and Australia aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship on the the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sydney, Australia, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The United States will deploy a record number of Marines to train in Australia, the Australian defense minister said on Friday, as Washington seeks to counter what it describes as Chinese aggression in the region.

Payne said 1,587 U.S. Marines will spend six months training in Australia’s remote north, an increase of nearly 27 percent on its 2017 rotation for the program known as the Force Posture Initiatives.

“The U.S. military plays a vital role in underwriting security and stability across the Indo-Pacific, and the Force Posture Initiatives will be an essential component in preserving stability and security over the coming decades,” Defence Minister Marise Payne said in a statement.

The deployment, first introduced in 2011 as part of a U.S. “pivot” to Asia, has emerged as a key indicator of Washington’s commitment to the region under U.S. President Donald Trump and his willingness to counter Chinese influence in a region where tensions have spiked amid disputes over the South China Sea.

China claims most of the South China Sea, an important trade route that is also believed to contain large quantities of oil and natural gas, and has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and air strips.

In a move likely to irk Beijing, the U.S. Marines will train with personnel from Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, some of which also have claims in the South China Sea.

“China will monitor whatever the U.S. does and it would prefer that the United States not work with the Asian countries included in these exercises,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute.

“Beijing would like to deal one-on-one with Southeast Asia nations that have counter claims,” he said.

The U.S. Marines will also bring additional military equipment, including helicopters and F-18 jets, Payne said.

The military deployment also threatens to further weaken Australia-Chinese relations.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally with no claim to the South China Sea, has long maintained its neutrality in the dispute to protect its economic relationship with China.

But bilateral relations have soured in recent months after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said China was improperly interfering in Canberra’s affairs, an accusation that triggered a rare protest from Beijing.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait)

Hundreds flee Australian bushfires that kill cattle, destroy homes

Smoke rises from a destroyed home after a bushfire swept through the town of Tathra, located on the south-east coast of New South Wales in Australia, March 19, 2018. AAP/Dean Lewins/via REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian authorities urged people to remain alert on Monday as bushfires that have destroyed dozens of homes, killed cattle and forced hundreds of residents to flee continued to burn out of control in the southeast of the country.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported on Monday but the bushfires have caused extensive damage in rural areas of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s two most populous states. More than 100 houses were damaged or destroyed, authorities said.

“At this stage (there have been) no lives lost,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at a news conference in the small NSW coastal town of Tathra.

“It is just a great credit to the firefighters, to the volunteers, the emergency workers – all of the community has pulled together and provided such great support,” he said.

The fires, believed to have been sparked by lightning on Saturday, were fanned by dry, hot winds as temperatures reached 41 degrees Celsius (106 Fahrenheit) on Sunday.

Emergency officials said conditions should ease later on Monday but “watch and act” warnings remained in place for five locations.

A house thats has been destroyed by a bushfire can be seen near the town of Cobden, located south west of Melbourne in Australia, March 18, 2018. AAP/David Crosling/via REUTERS

A house thats has been destroyed by a bushfire can be seen near the town of Cobden, located south west of Melbourne in Australia, March 18, 2018. AAP/David Crosling/via REUTERS

The fire also set off an argument among Australia’s politicians on whether climate change was a contributing factor to the blazes.

“You can’t attribute any particular event, whether it’s a flood or fire or a drought …to climate change. We are the land of droughts and flooding rains, we’re the land of bushfires,” Turnbull said.

Authorities said some 69 houses were destroyed and a further 39 were damaged and 30 caravans or cabins were also wiped out in Tathra, where residents fled to the beach on Sunday to avoid the flames as flying embers quickly carried the firefront forward.

About 700 residents were evacuated to centers set up at the nearby town of Bega and several schools in affected areas were closed on Monday.

NSW Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers earlier told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that five of 22 fires had not yet been contained.

“There’s still a lot of fire around the landscape,” he said, warning that it would still be several days before they were extinguished.

About 280 firefighters were battling the blazes, while 22,000 homes were without power in the region after high winds brought down trees, Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said late on Sunday.

Bushfires are a common and deadly threat in Australia’s hot, dry summers, fueled by highly flammable eucalyptus trees.

In January, hundreds of holidaymakers had to be evacuated by boat from the beaches of the Royal National Park south of Sydney when they became trapped by bushfires.

The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria killed 173 people and injured more than 400.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell and Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Additional reporting by Melanie Burton in MELBOURNE; Editing by Susan Fenton and Paul Tait)

Finland is world’s happiest country, U.S. discontent grows: U.N. report

People enjoy a sunnny day at the Esplanade in Helsinki, Finland, May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Finland is the world’s happiest country, according to an annual survey issued on Wednesday that found Americans were getting less happy even as their country became richer.

Burundi came bottom in the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s (SDSN) 2018 World Happiness Report which ranked 156 countries according to things such as GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity and absence of corruption.

Taking the harsh, dark winters in their stride, Finns said access to nature, safety, childcare, good schools and free healthcare were among the best things about in their country.

 

FILE PHOTO: Finland's flag flutters in Helsinki, Finland, May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Finland’s flag flutters in Helsinki, Finland, May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Photo

“I’ve joked with the other Americans that we are living the American dream here in Finland,” said Brianna Owens, who moved from the United States and is now a teacher in Espoo, Finland’s second biggest city with a population of around 280,000.

“I think everything in this society is set up for people to be successful, starting with university and transportation that works really well,” Owens told Reuters.

Finland, rose from fifth place last year to oust Norway from the top spot. The 2018 top-10, as ever dominated by the Nordics, is: Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia.

The United States came in at 18th, down from 14th place last year. Britain was 19th and the United Arab Emirates 20th.

One chapter of the 170-page report is dedicated to emerging health problems such as obesity, depression and the opioid crisis, particularly in the United States where the prevalence of all three has grown faster than in most other countries.

While U.S. income per capita has increased markedly over the last half century, happiness has been hit by weakened social support networks, a perceived rise in corruption in government and business and declining confidence in public institutions.

“We obviously have a social crisis in the United States: more inequality, less trust, less confidence in government,” the head of the SDSN, Professor Jeffrey Sachs of New York’s Columbia University, told Reuters as the report was launched at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

“It’s pretty stark right now. The signs are not good for the U.S. It is getting richer and richer but not getting happier.”

Asked how the current political situation in the United States could affect future happiness reports, Sachs said:

“Time will tell, but I would say that in general that when confidence in government is low, when perceptions of corruption are high, inequality is high and health conditions are worsening … that is not conducive to good feelings.”

For the first time since it was started in 2012, the report, which uses a variety of polling organizations, official figures and research methods, ranked the happiness of foreign-born immigrants in 117 countries.

Finland took top honors in that category too, giving the country a statistical double-gold status.

The foreign-born were least happy in Syria, which has been mired in civil war for seven years.

“The most striking finding of the report is the remarkable consistency between the happiness of immigrants and the locally born,” said Professor John Helliwell of Canada’s University of British Columbia.

“Although immigrants come from countries with very different levels of happiness, their reported life evaluations converge towards those of other residents in their new countries,” he said.

“Those who move to happier countries gain, while those who move to less happy countries lose.”

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Reuters television in Finland; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Shakes and superstition: Exxon faces backlash in Papua New Guinea

FILE PHOTO: The ExxonMobil Hides Gas Conditioning Plant process area is seen in Papua New Guinea in this handout photo dated March 1, 2018. ExxonMobil/Handout via REUTERS/File Phot

By Jonathan Barrett and Henning Gloystein

SYDNEY/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – A deadly earthquake that struck ExxonMobil’s $19 billion gas project in the mountains of Papua New Guinea is sparking a backlash against the U.S. energy giant that could prove harder to fix than buried roads and broken pipes.

Some spooked locals blame Exxon <XOM.N> and its project partners of causing, or at least magnifying, the 7.5 magnitude quake on Feb. 26 and a series of intense aftershocks that continue to pound the impoverished and isolated region.

While firmly denied by Exxon and debunked by geologists, the accusations suggest that the project known as PNG LNG, one of the most successful liquefied natural gas (LNG) developments in the world, is sorely lacking goodwill from at least parts of the local population.

The concerns about the project – the country’s biggest revenue earner – are even being expressed at senior levels in the Papua New Guinea government.

PNG’s Vice Minister for Petroleum and Energy, Manasseh Makiba, told Reuters in a phone interview there should be an inquiry to respond to local concerns that mother nature had reacted after the ground was disturbed by drilling.

Graphic on Papua New Guinea’s earthquakes and aftershocks: http://reut.rs/2tq3zY6

“It could be man-made but that cannot be confirmed until a proper scientific inquiry can be done,” said Makiba, who represents parts of the quake-hit area. “We need to resolve that.”

PNG’s Minister for Finance James Marape has also demanded answers from the company.

“In a world of science and knowledge, I now demand answer(s) from Exxon and my own government as to the cause of this unusual trend in my Hela,” wrote Marape on his private feed on Facebook, referring to the quake-struck province.

He is among many who have lit up social media in PNG, with blogs and Facebook posts pointing the finger at the oil and gas sector’s alleged contribution to the disaster.

Around Exxon’s operation, communities remain fearful as the death toll climbs, with 18 more killed by a 6.7 magnitude aftershock on Wednesday.

Papua New Guinea straddles the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire.

Chris McKee, acting director of the Geohazards Management Division in Port Moresby, said there was no link between the project and seismic activity, which has included more than 120 quakes of magnitude 4.5 and greater in the week after the initial hit.

Graphic on Papua New Guinea government revenue and LNG income – http://reut.rs/2D3KAlP

“Earthquake activity has been going on much longer than the oil and gas industry presence in the region – there is no connection at all,” McKee said.

Scientific evidence strongly suggests the earthquake was “naturally occurring and consistent with prior events”, an Exxon spokeswoman said in a statement.

CORPORATE SUPPORT

Led by Exxon, with a one-third stake, and its Australian partners Oil Search <OSH.AX> and Santos <STO.AX>, PNG LNG could be shut for months as it inspects pipelines, the processing plant and the gas field for damage.

Exxon said it was giving $1 million to assist communities affected by the earthquake and was providing on-the-ground support to relief agencies so that resources could reach areas in greatest need.

“Logistics remains a challenge with roads cut and communication with remote communities difficult,” a company spokeswoman said. “We are continuing to provide logistics and human resources to help aid agencies to deliver support to our communities for the long term as they recover from this event.”

Oil Search Managing Director Peter Botten said he had not witnessed any local animosity toward the LNG project. Oil Search was constantly balancing the need for relief aid and keeping the community-sustaining business going when allocating post-quake resources, he said.

Graphic on share price performance of oil majors – http://reut.rs/2FeHCRw

“There’s a lot of concern the gods have been offended and specifically this is about education, and what earthquakes are about,” Botten told Reuters in a phone interview from PNG’s capital Port Moresby. “This is a communication issue.”

Most of the nations 8 million inhabitants live in remote communities where traditional beliefs remain strongly held.

SHAKY GROUND

Exxon has previously faced resentment in PNG, which contains vast natural resources but remains desperately poor.

Martyn Namorong, national coordinator for landowner rights and governance lobby group PNG Resource Governance Coalition, said the quake had reawakened concerns raised in 2012 when a landslide tore through a quarry used by Exxon, killing at least 25 people.

“It’s not just a localized thing or an ignorant thing. People are wondering what might be the contributing factor of oil and gas extraction,” said Namorong, referring to the quake.

Exxon said at the time it had closed the Tumbi quarry five months before the landslide.

“Tumbi was a tragic event that had its own unique set of circumstances,” Exxon told Reuters in an email, without elaborating.

Concerns flared again last year when the oil major had to evacuate staff due to unrest in Hela province, where the project’s Hides Gas processing unit is located.

The trouble was linked to national elections and disputes over royalties from the PNG LNG project, which generates around $3 billion in sales per year at current LNG prices.

“PEOPLE ARE TERRIFIED”

The earthquake forced a closure of the Hides Gas processing facility which feeds a 700-km (435 miles) pipeline snaking through the jungle to the LNG plant and export terminal near Port Moresby.

The disruption in Papua New Guinea comes shortly after Exxon reported disappointing results, with PNG LNG a rare bright spot. Its shares have underperformed compared with its main competitors Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP  and Total.

“PNG LNG had reportedly been running at a very healthy 20 percent above nameplate capacity… There will be some hit to the PNG industry,” said Readul Islam, research analyst at consultancy Rystad Energy.

If repairs take long, the quakes could even delay plans with France’s Total to double output to around 16 million tonnes per annum at an estimated cost of $13 billion.

The companies plan to add three new LNG units, or trains, with two underpinned by gas from the Elk-Antelope fields, run by Total, and one underpinned by existing fields and a new Exxon-run field.

Repairs have been complicated by landslides blocking roads and the closure of the Komo airfield, which is the main lifeline of the region to the outside world.

Oil Search’s Botten said, importantly, the integrity of the gas facilities had been maintained and there were no leaks.

Still, the aftershocks have kept the local population on edge.

“The people are terrified,” said Australian Sally Lloyd, from near the quake zone in Mount Hagen. “They think the world is coming to an end.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett in SYDNEY and Henning Gloystein in SINGAPORE; additional reporting by Gary McWilliams in HOUSTON and Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

Papua New Guinea aid workers race to deliver supplies as aftershocks strike

People displaced by an earthquake gather at a relief centre in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea March 1, 2018. Milton Kwaipo/Caritas Australia/Handout via REUTERS

By Sonali Paul and Charlotte Greenfield

MELBOURNE/WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Aid workers struggled to reach remote areas of Papua New Guinea’s rugged highlands on Tuesday as aftershocks rattled the region, more than a week after a powerful 7.5 magnitude earthquake killed dozens of people.

Two aftershocks above magnitude 5 and one of magnitude 6.7 hit the mountainous Southern Highlands, about 600 km (370 miles) northwest of the capital Port Moresby, with the constant shaking driving people from their homes to makeshift shelters for fear of landslides.

There were no immediate reports of damage from the magnitude 6.7 tremor, which struck shortly after midnight, Wednesday morning, local time.

Local media outlets on Tuesday reported the death toll had grown to 75, after government officials said previously that 55 people had been killed.

James Komengi, a United Church project officer, speaking from Tari, the capital of quake-affected Hela province, said his church’s assessment and response center had counted up to 67 deaths in that province alone.

“Mothers and children are so traumatized. Even my own children are refusing to sleep in our house. Every little movement scares them,” said Komengi.

Concerns were also growing about access to safe drinking water after the shaking destroyed many water tanks, while land slips had poured mud into natural water sources.

“Because of the landslides … it’s very dirty water,” said Udaya Regmi, Director the International Red Cross in Papua New Guinea. Provincial health officials and Red Cross volunteers were urgently trying to improve sanitation systems and carry out hygiene training to avoid an outbreak of dystentry, Regmi said.

Local hospitals had seen a number of people with stomach conditions, but it was not yet confirmed whether these were due to contaminated water, he added.

Aid agencies were struggling to get aid by helicopter to all of the nearly 150,000 people who remained in urgent need of emergency supplies.

“The logistics are still a massive problem,” said Anna Bryan, an aid worker for CARE Australia based in the capital Port Moresby.

Australia, New Zealand and the Red Cross have all pledged aid, although reaching the remote area has proved difficult as forbidding terrain and bad weather, as well as damaged roads and runways, have delayed aid efforts.

“Right now the main challenge in the affected areas is accessibility by roads. There are big cracks along the roads and even roads completely cut off. So that’s making it quite difficult to get water, food and medicine to the remote areas,” said Milton Kwaipo, Caritas Australia’s disaster response and management officer in Papua New Guinea.

The quake has also been felt on global gas markets, with ExxonMobil Corp declaring force majeure on exports from Papua New Guinea, according to an industry source, pushing up Asian spot liquefied natural gas (LNG) prices.

The company declined to comment on the force majeure, but said it would take about 8 weeks to restore production.

 

(Reporting by Sonali Paul in MELBOURNE, Charlotte Greenfield in WELLINGTON and Byron Kaye in SYDNEY; editing by Richard Pullin and Kevin Liffey)

Death toll rises to 31 in PNG quake as weather and damage hamper relief effort

Locals surround a house that was covered by a landslide in the town of Mendi after an earthquake struck Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands, in this image taken February 27, 2018 obtained from social media. Francis Ambrose/via REUTERS

By Tom Westbrook

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The death toll from the strongest earthquake to strike Papua New Guinea’s rugged interior in almost a century has climbed to 31 and would probably rise further, officials said on Thursday, as damage to roads, runways and phone lines slowed relief efforts.

Remote hamlets closest to the epicenter of the 7.5 magnitude quake in the Southern Highlands were buried, killing 13 people, said James Justin, a research officer at the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy in Port Moresby in an email, citing a two-way radio call from a mission station in the region.

Most of the other confirmed fatalities were in or around the provincial capital of Mendi and the town of Tari 40 km (25 miles) from the epicenter, where aftershocks continue to be felt and people afraid their homes may yet collapse have been sleeping in their yards.

“Tari is completely shut down,” Mark Mendai, head of the district’s Development Authority told Reuters by phone.

“All the water tanks have been turned over and at the moment people are suffering a lack of fresh water, all the rivers are dirty,” he said. “The runway has some cracks, the district offices are all spoiled, all our roads within Tari are cracked, blocking traveling traffic.”

A spokesman from the country’s National Disaster Centre said a preliminary damage assessment from the quake, which struck the mountainous Southern Highlands some 560 km (350 miles) northwest of the capital, Port Moresby, was still incomplete.

Australia has promised tarpaulins, water purification tablets, and water containers, and despatched a military C-130 transport plane to assist with aerial surveillance.

Pictures showed collapsed buildings in Mendi and residents using shovels to clear away landslides.

That left those injured in villages to the west unable to reach the general hospital, where wards were largely empty except for long-term patients, Wendy Tinaik, assistant to the hospital’s director, said by phone.

Miners and oil and gas companies were also assessing damage to their infrastructure, including a 700-km (435-mile) gas pipeline that connects to a coastal liquefaction plant, but were hampered by bad weather according to Oil Search Ltd.

Quake damage shut the region’s biggest airfield at Komo, built to supply remote Exxon Mobil Corp facilities, though bush airstrips were accessible and Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) evacuated four people to Mt Hagen.

“As we flew and photographed all that we could see, we prayed for those below that had been affected,” said Connie-Lou Aebischer from MAF.

“The majority of the landslides were in what appeared to be largely uninhabited mountainous regions, or at least sporadically inhabited, which was the saving grace through this ongoing instability in the earth.”

(This version of the story has been refiled to fix typo in headline)

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook in Sydney. Additional reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne)

Papua New Guinea officials say whole villages flattened by deadly quake

A handout photo shows several landslides on mountains in the Muller range after an earthquake struck Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands February 26, 2018. Picture taken February 26, 2018. Steve Eatwell-Mission Aviation Fellowship/Handout via REUTERS

By Tom Westbrook

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Whole villages were flattened and water sources spoiled by a powerful earthquake that killed at least 20 people, residents said on Wednesday as rescuers struggled to reach the hardest-hit areas in Papua New Guinea’s remote, mountainous highlands.

The magnitude 7.5 quake rocked the rugged Southern Highlands province some 560 km (350 miles) northwest of the capital, Port Moresby, triggering landslides, damaging mining, gas and power infrastructure, and cutting communications.

Scores of aftershocks have hampered rescue efforts and rattled nervous villagers over the past two days, including a 6.0 tremor just before 1 p.m. (0300 GMT) on Wednesday registered by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Damaged buildings are seen after a powerful 7.5 magnitude earthquake, in Mendi, Papua New Guinea February 26, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken February 26, 2018. RAKA GEVE /via REUTERS ?ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Damaged buildings are seen after a powerful 7.5 magnitude earthquake, in Mendi, Papua New Guinea February 26, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken February 26, 2018. RAKA GEVE /via REUTERS ?ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Most of the confirmed fatalities were in or around the provincial capital of Mendi, where television pictures showed collapsed buildings and landslides, and the town of Tari, according to authorities and residents contacted by Reuters.

“It’s massive destruction,” Stanley Mamu told Reuters by telephone from Tari, 40 km (25 miles) from the epicenter. One person was killed in Tari and another five were killed in a landslide in a nearby village, he said.

“There are buildings on the ground and landslides along the roads. My home was destroyed. The main sources of water were all flooded, it’s dirty and brown and people can’t drink that water,” Mamu said.

Elsewhere rivers had silted up or become blocked, villages damaged and gardens and water tanks destroyed, though the biggest landslides hit sparsely populated areas, according to Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), an air transport operator that flew a three-hour survey on Tuesday.

A cloudy morning and fog in the afternoon on Wednesday hampered official efforts to assess damage by helicopter, let alone distribute aid, said Kaigabu Kamnanaya, Director of Risk Management at Papua New Guinea’s National Disaster Centre.

Miners and oil and gas companies were also assessing the damage, which included ensuring a 700-km (435-mile) gas pipeline that connects to a coastal liquefaction plant was intact before it could be reopened.

Australia sent a C-130 military transport plane to help with aerial surveillance. The office of Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement it would likely take days before the extent of the damage was clear.

A police officer in Mendi said landslides had buried homes and blocked a river residents worried could flood the town.

“We are really in deep fear,” said police sergeant Naring Bongi. “It continues to be active. We didn’t sleep well and stayed awake until daybreak … no helicopters or government officials have come to our assistance.”

Medical supplies and heavy equipment to clear landslides were also needed, said James Justin, a spokesman for provincial MP Manasseh Makiba, as well as food in places where productive gardens had been wrecked.

“The casualties have yet to be confirmed but many more than 20 people have lost their lives,” he said.

Locals surround a house that was covered by a landslide in the town of Mendi after an earthquake struck Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands, in this image taken February 27, 2018 obtained from social media. Francis Ambrose/via REUTER

Locals surround a house that was covered by a landslide in the town of Mendi after an earthquake struck Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands, in this image taken February 27, 2018 obtained from social media. Francis Ambrose/via REUTERS

Earthquakes are common in Papua New Guinea, which sits on the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire”, a hotspot for seismic activity due to friction between tectonic plates. Part of PNG’s northern coast was devastated in 1998 by a tsunami, generated by a 7.0 quake, which killed about 2,200 people.

 

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY, Writing by Jonathan Barrett, Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry)

Cyclone wreaks havoc in Tonga’s capital, parliament flattened, homes wrecked

The aftermath of cyclone Gita is seen in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, February 13, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Twitter Virginie Dourlet/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

By John Mair

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Tonga’s neighbors scrambled to deliver emergency relief on Tuesday after Cyclone Gita tore across the Pacific island nation in the middle of the night, flattening the parliament, tearing roofs off homes and causing widespread flooding.

There were no confirmed reports of deaths from the Category 4 storm that bought winds of around 200 km (125 miles) per hour, but there were a lot of injured people, some seriously, said Graham Kenna, an Australian government adviser at Tonga’s National Emergency Management Office.

Photos posted on social media showed a wrecked Parliament House building in the capital, as well as extensive flooding and downed power lines. Access to areas outside the capital were hindered by the storm damage and debris.

“The full extent of damage caused by Cyclone Gita is still being assessed but there is an immediate need for assistance on the ground,” NZ Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said in a statement.

“About 5,700 people sought shelter in evacuation centres overnight, and it is expected these numbers will increase substantially tonight.”

New Zealand is donating NZ$750,000 ($545,000) in aid, and a NZ Air Force Hercules aircraft was due to fly emergency relief supplies into Tonga on Tuesday.

Australia is donating A$350,000 ($275,000) worth of emergency shelter, kitchen and hygiene kits, while the country’s foreign minister said the Australian Defence Force personnel would assist with clean-up efforts.

The cyclone was heading towards Fiji’s southern islands on Tuesday, with some forecasts reporting it intensifying towards a Category 5 storm. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama warned residents to “heed warnings and prepare”, although the storm is expected to bypass heavily populated areas.

Gita had pummeled Samoa and American Samoa, about 900 km (560 miles) to the northeast, over the weekend, flooding the Samoan capital, Apia.

The aftermath of cyclone Gita is seen in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, February 13, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Facebook Noazky Langi/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

The aftermath of cyclone Gita is seen in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, February 13, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Facebook Noazky Langi/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

POWER DOWN

Tonga’s clean-up began in the early hours of Tuesday as the tail of the cyclone was still over the capital, Nuku’alofa.

“Every second power pole has been knocked over and the lines are just everywhere,” Kenna said, saying it would likely be days before power could be restored. Water supplies and radio networks were also disrupted.

“They turned the power off very early before the cyclone came, knowing that the power lines would be blown down, which was a good move.”

The worst of the cyclone hit around a low tide, so there were no reports of storm surges worsening the impact of the wind and rains.

Kenna estimated around 40 percent of houses in the capital had suffered some damage, many with roofs blown off.

“A lot of the older houses, especially some of the older heritage houses, have been badly damaged or destroyed, which is very sad, they’re quite historical,” he said. “They’ve been through cyclones before, but this is the biggest cyclone this island has had for at least 60 odd years.”

($1 = 1.3776 New Zealand dollars)

($1 = 1.2718 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by John Mair in Wellington.; Additional reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney; Editing by Jane Wardell and SImon Cameron-Moore)