By CLIFFORD FAIPARIK in Kimbe
KIMBE disaster officers and volunteers are working round the clock to mobilise the evacuation of some 15,000 people in East Nakanai following the eruption of Mt Ulawun in Bialla, West New Britain (WNB), on Wednesday morning.
Papua New Guinea (PNG) National Disaster Centre has declared a Category 2 volcanic eruption, making evacuation mandatory for all villagers.
More than 120,000 other villagers staying further away from the volcano are also expected to be affected and evacuated as Mt Ulawun continues to spew thick black ash with growing intensity by the hour.
Hoskins Airport is reported to be covered in 4mm of thick volcanic ash and both Air Niugini and PNG Air had cancelled all flights since the eruption at 7am Wednesday.
Japanese Ambassador Satoshi Nakajima, WNB MP and State Enterprises Minister Sasindran Muthuvel and WNB Governor Francis Maneke are among the many air travellers left stranded over an indefinite period.
Works secretary David Wereh, Transport secretary Roy Mumu, six Port Moresby-based journalists and five Japanese embassy officers are also among the hundreds of air commuters stranded at the airport.
The WNB highway to Kokopo, East New Britain, is also closed to traffic due to thick black ashes.
Muthuvel said aircraft could neither land nor take-off due to the thick black ashes that affected engines and the airport tarmac.
“The only way for us to get out is the use of helicopters and fly to Kandrian or Morobe in Lae, and then fly to Port Moresby. Also, the Digicel network is off. Only bmobile and Telikom networks are in service,” he added.
Muthuvel said: “This is the biggest spewing of thick ashes from the same volcano. There were other explosions, the latest eruption was in 2008.
“The eruptions were not as huge or massive as this one. We are all caught by surprise. The first eruption was at about 5am on Wednesday while we were opening the new Aum and Kapiura bridges that were funded by the Japanese Government and officiated at by Nakajima.
“But it was not that serious. Then, at 12.45pm, it started spewing thick ashes about 15km in the air. And the ashes spread as far as Kimbe town, about 200km from Mt Ulawun.
“And it looks like the whole of Talasea District, from East Nakanai Local Level Government (LLG), Central Nakanai LLG, Hoskins LLG, Mosa LLG , Kimbe Urban LLG and Talasea LLG will be affected. Gardens and water sources will be covered by volcanic dust and ash.”
Some 15,000 people in East Nakanai need immediate evacuation and help.
Disaster officers and volunteers and six trucks of food and water supplies have been mobilised to leave Kimbe town for Barima, Bagara, Mandi and Soi.
However, the supplies would only last for about a week.
“We need about K1.5 million worth of food supplies for about two weeks. We need water containers and taupulins for shelters. We need help from the National Government and the deployment of the PNG Defence Force to assist,” Muthuvel said.
He said Maneke was now writing to the National Executive Council for assistance.
“Right now, the provincial disaster office is organising relief supplies with the Red Cross involvement. Also, the World Health Organisation (WHO) which is carrying out polio immunisation programme here, has joined to help in disaster relief efforts,” he added.
Muthuvel is also appealing to opportunists not to take advantage of the situation to loot abandoned residential houses or business houses. The occupants had fled to relief centres.
“I am also appealing to people to stay indoors and take measures, like wearing face masks, to avoid breathing in dust,” he added.
Maneke said more than 120,000 people were estimated to be affected by the volcanic eruption, including villagers in the Hoskins area, like the small block holders where the Hargy Oil Palm Estate is located.
“This includes Hargy employees and workers who are now being evacuated. The situation is serious,” he added.
Meanwhile, Air Niugini said in a statement that flights to and from Hoskins Airport had been suspended (until further notice).
“The National Airports Corporation has issued a notice to airmen (NOTAM) advising the temporary closure of the Hoskins aerodrome,” it said.
“The situation is being monitored daily and the resumption of flights will depend on the volcanic activity.
“Passengers who are travelling to Hoskins are reminded to cancel their travel plans from Port Moresby to Kimbe and WNB.
“Should travellers insist to risk being stranded in the airport in Port Moresby, they will have to bear their own cost. Air Niugini appreciates the travelling public’s understanding on this matter,” the statement added.
No injuries or deaths have been reported in the past 48 hours.
By CLIFFORD FAIPARIK in Kimbe