Of Earthquakes and Airstrips

Just this morning, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake rumbled some 60 miles from Ukarumpa.  It was the biggest and most unnerving one we’ve ever felt – Finn snuggled with us for a full five minutes after it was over.  The house swayed, lamps fell to the ground, and the book room at school is a disaster.  But no one here was hurt.

Photo from our local store this morning.

Our houses are built for this kind of impact, since we live on the edge of the Ring of Fire.  Reports haven’t come in yet about the folks who live 60 miles from here, but an earthquake of this size rarely quakes without doing some kind of significant damage.  If you’re the praying sort, do be in prayer for those whose houses aren’t built as firmly, for those who don’t have ready access to clinics, and those who rely on their land for their livelihoods.

If you ever get a chance to visit PNG, one of the things you might first notice is the grass or dirt runways scattered throughout the country.  Since so much of the country is rural, and so many roads don’t reach the innermost places here, these airstrips are one of the main ways our translators can reach the people they work with.

But in times of crisis, these airstrips perform another role as well: they are “lifelines.”  After this morning’s earthquake, I thought back to a similar earthquake just over a year ago – and a story I’d heard about the connection between that earthquake, airstrips, our work, and God’s provision:

The Edolo Airstrip that Helped Thousands
by the Rural Airstrip Agency

On February 26th, 2018, in the middle of the cold PNG night, a seismic event happened 30 kms below ground, releasing a monstrous earthquake that would rock the interior of the southern part of the island of New Guinea, killing 145 people and impact almost a half a million people in four provinces, pushing 270,000 people out of their homes, destroying their houses, their gardens, their water sources, their schools, their villages and laying waste to their communities…  After the earthquake, aftershocks and more than 200 quakes followed for more than a month. As land caved in along the fault line that runs from the Papuan highlands in the north, to the Fly River lowlands in the south, whole villages were abandoned.

The earthquake destroyed parts of the Highlands Highway including bridges. Feeder roads looked like a bomb detonated underneath them.  Water sources became contaminated, rivers became so clogged with mud and debris that fish and crocodiles died.  Villages that had 200 people swelled to over 2000 overnight as survivors banded together. With no gardens and no water, and unable to account for so many others, villagers could only wait for help to reach them.

Like so many others, the Edolo people of Hela had little choice but to flee their villages as well.

Twenty Edolo villages in total evacuated as the 7.5 M earthquake turned solid earth to liquid at the surface. The villagers knew where they had to run to.  Years ago, they had worked with missionaries to flatten and create two long stretches of open grass fields which they had lined with cone markers and set up wind socks. These were the Dodomona and Huya airstrips.  Huya, like many of the other airstrips, was damaged by the earthquake. Despite this, pilots understood the desperation of survivors and were risking life and equipment to deliver aid.

In the early hours of the morning, as the aftershocks continued to rumbled, more than three thousand men, women and children gathered at the two airstrips, waiting and hoping that help would come. Sadly, they had lost at least 11 members of their tribe.  The survivors banded together and waited… And help did come.  SIL Aviation [based in Ukarumpa] worked over time with other agencies to deliver assistance to the victims.

Rural airstrips are more than a piece of grass with cone markers along the sides. Rural airstrips are lifelines, bastions of hope that we will not be abandoned in our hour of need. For a generation, people have known that if they can get to the airstrip, they can get to help. A rural airstrip in PNG is a simple investment of land, of resources, of labour and sweat by locals, that in the end, has the ability to help thousands, in good times and in bad times too.

God Bless PNG.


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