As you may remember, on February 26th, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck Papua New Guinea, followed by 6.2 and 6.0 quakes next day. Along with causing some severe damage to many remote communities, these quakes made inoperable the limited mobile phone service that existed (no landlines exist out there).
This is when Christian Radio Missionary Fellowship stepped in with our HF radio network to connect these isolated communities to the help they desperately needed. Because our HF radios were already strategically located at airstrips in the affected regions, we could quickly find out which airstrips were operational and which were damaged. The airstrips soon became crowded as refugees from devastated villages started congregating there.
“The next day, although our facilities were OK, we heard that much communication was down in the affected location and so HF radio became a vital link to assess the needs of many remote communities in this area, some who have only ever had HF radio.” – General Manager of CRMF, Michael Wakefield.
The Radio Saving Lives
CRMF maintains an HF radio network that covers most of Papua New Guinea. Remote churches and mission stations, health clinics, schools, and especially those responsible for looking after airstrips all use our radios to communicate. CRMF monitors an emergency radio channel seven day a week, 24 hours a day.
When the earthquake occurred this channel became very busy. The airwaves were filled with requests for emergency medical flights to carry the injured to hospitals as well as requests for food, shelter, and clean water. With the guidance of MAF, who was leading the initial disaster relief efforts, CRMF logged all radio calls and at the end of each day, I (Brian Ward) sent a summary report to eventually around 30 different e-mail addresses representing many governments, NGOs, and mission agencies.
Mendi (a town in the Southern Highlands) suffered great loss with 600-700 houses, two aid posts, a primary school, and an elementary school covered by landslips. Reports also came in over the radio of a hundred livestock dead, gardens covered or ruined beyond repair, and water sources turned red. The Southern, Western, and Hela provinces were the most affected by the earthquake.
“Right now, we don’t have any food /water to survive. We face the difficult situations, so we are really hungry. Kindly we ask you CRMF, did you have any options to help us?” -Gipson Wembip Kaket, from Mendi, asks us over the radio. We received many similar calls.
In Huya from the CRMF radio log book:
March 7th, 8:45am, Huya calls A899 (CRMF) on the radio and reported that the earthquake had caused landslides that covered 14 people. Twelve people were confirmed dead. They requested three patients to be medevaced. The 1st was badly injured in the landslide; the other 2 patients were a mother and child. While trying to run away because of the earthquake, a branch fell on the mother’s head, broke both her arms and she passed out. The little child was also crushed by the branch and suffered serious damage to his eye. They were in critical condition. CRMF contacted MAF Kiunga and they arranged a flight.
My (Brian’s) job description seemed to expand each day as I went from talking over the radio to the remote communities gathering information, to attending the local government meetings advocating for relief supplies to be sent out, to sending out press releases and public notices to the PNG media.
During this time, CRMF assisted these communities in many ways such as connecting health workers in the region to doctors who could answer their questions and provide expert advice. CRMF also connected pastors and other church workers to their national leadership so they could request assistance with rebuilding churches and providing relief to communities.
Some of the remote communities began reporting unusual damages to their gardens by pests and other garden issues. Brian passed on this information to the relevant government and NGO experts and requested that they respond to the communities and provide aid. This work is still ongoing.
On April 16th we received a report from Fuma, one of the villages affected:
“Earthquake and landslips continue. The water is contaminated, muddy, and an odor came out of it that causes people to feel sick – skin infections (diarrhea, cough, headache and vomit). Community and P/School teachers have a shortage of food since 3 weeks ago, people felt weak, dizzy (really need food). They are asking for 20 meter rope to tie up their canoes, 4 tuffa tanks to store clean water (2 for community and 2 for P/school) plus bedding, and soap. There is no Health Worker and no medicine yet, need Medicine. Gardens infected with pests.”
When the Volcano Was Supposed to be Erupting!
Another interesting story that illustrates the importance of CRMF and the unique things we get involved in was when a rumor began circulating that an extinct volcano in the earthquake-affected region was becoming active again and people would need to flee from the refugee centers and go into the jungle. When this rumor first became known, I (Brian) contacted the geology experts at the leading PNG universities who let us know that this was not the case. CRMF then broadcast warnings that this was just a rumor and that if people left the refugee centers they would be unable to get food supplies. I also conducted a PR campaign sharing the same information with various radio, print, and TV reporters.
The rumor seemed to stop for a month but then came back stronger than ever. Eyewitness accounts of smoke and fire at the top of the volcano started spreading by phone and then by social media till even the government was making evacuation plans for the people around the volcano. I quickly called the leading volcanic experts in PNG, the Rabual Volcanic Observatory, who made it quite clear that the volcano was extinct; it could not be erupting. I put out a plea to any in the mission community who could provide some eyewitness testimony that the mountain was not erupting.
One missionary, Anton Lutz, along with an SIL helicopter pilot, took a couple of local village elders and flew to the volcanic mountain and landed in the crater. They took video recordings from handheld cameras and flew a drone with a camera all around the area. This video recording, along with the scientist’s testimony, finally killed the rumor. MAF and other pilots carried the video recordings on tablets to remote villages showing the video when they landed, and the video was also on the national television news.
Communication Brings Community
Not only is CRMF a lifeline for handing over much-needed information to those who can help the affected people with their physical needs, we have also a listening ear, someone to hear the stories of the most affected people. The relief we hear in their voices when they can tell people what they have been through is palpable.
An example of this: One of our radio operators took a call from a remote community. They said that there had just been another large landslide. The man on the radio said everyone was okay, but “please if you call us again in a few days and we don’t answer it is because a landslide has cover us up. Please check on us!”
We often pray on the radio with those we are talking with. When we heard from many communities about their garden pests we assured them that we were doing everything we could to get them help and then we prayed for them over our radio channel.
The HF radio also provides a community aspect to communications. As everyone in the radio world can hear what is said. Everyone is hearing their stories and sharing the pain together. This gives people strength and encouragement.
As of May 29th, CRMF is still receiving requests for assistance from the affected communities due to the earthquake and passing those on. Please continue to lift up in prayer those affected by the earthquake.