Thursday, April 20, 2006

Indonesia fears that people will evacuate at the last minute

Villagers living on the upper slopes of Mount Merapi, Indonesia's most active volcano, are being urged to prepare for evacuation after authorities warned that a major eruption may be imminent following heightened seismic activity.

Merapi, located on the densely populated border of Central Java and Yogyakarta provinces, has in recent days been spewing out thick sulfur clouds, with occasional spurts of lava and rocks. The volcano's status was last week upgraded to a Code Orange Alert – the second highest warning level before an imminent eruption. Authorities have warned that magma pressure is building up inside the volcano's craters.

The Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry's Directorate of Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation (DVGHM) uses a system of four levels of alert:

- Alert 1 (Code Green – Active Normal – "Aktif Normal") - No activity based on monitoring visual seismicity and other events. No eruptions in foreseeable future.

- Alert 2 (Code Yellow – Danger - "Waspada") - Increased seismicity and other volcanic events such as gases. Visual changes around the crater and magmatic, tectonic or hydrothermal disturbances. Eruption is not imminent; however, due to the increased danger, local officials should prepare for a disaster.

- Alert 3 (Code Orange – Ready to Erupt - "Siaga") – Rapid rise in seismicity accompanied by obvious visual changes in the crater. Large eruption possible within one to two weeks, depending on data analysis.

- Alert 4 (Code Red – Active Danger - "Awas") – Begin evacuation due to small eruptions and/or potential for a large eruption spewing ash, lava and gases. A major eruption is imminent, possibly within 24 hours.

Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Aburizal Bakrie said Tuesday (18/4/06) that although Merapi's status has not yet been raised to Active Danger, locals should remain prepared for evacuation.

Women, children and the elderly from some villages closest to Merapi's mist and smoke shrouded summit have already started spending nights at relatives' houses located further downhill to get a headstart should they need to flee. Adult men are remaining at the villages to guard property and livestock against theft.

DVGHM has advised authorities to prepare for the evacuation of almost 30,000 people if Merapi's seismic activity intensifies.

Evacuation drills have been conducted, while the police and military have deployed more than 200 trucks and buses should villagers be ordered to leave. Authorities and Indonesian Red Cross officials have also been preparing temporary shelters equipped with food and medical supplies. Dozens of ambulance teams have been placed on standby.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has called for a comprehensive evacuation plan and appealed to locals not to panic in the event of an eruption. "What I need is not merely information that Mount Merapi is still active and may erupt any time, but the most important thing for me is evacuation plans for the residents there if something happens," he was quoted as saying by state news agency Antara.

There are concerns that evacuation routes on part of the mountain may be impassable because several of the roads are in poor repair.

The Australian government has warned its citizens living in Yogyakarta city to stay away from Merapi, which is popular with climbers and nature enthusiasts. More than 40 Australians are studying at Yogyakarta's Gadjah Mada University, while various others also live in the city.
Some people living nearby the 2,968-meter volcano are unwilling to evacuate, claiming the situation is not yet dangerous because they believe local spirits guarding over the mountain will warn them before a major eruption occurs.

Although most locals are Muslims, many still follow traditional mystical beliefs involving the worship of ancient spirits. They believe Merapi's fiery gods can be appeased by throwing offerings of livestock, food and jewelry into the main crater.

In the past, many locals often ignored orders from government officials to evacuate when major eruptions were imminent. Farmers are attracted to Merapi's slopes because of the fertile soil, while many sand-miners work in rivers below the mountain.

Some farmers said they would not leave until wild animals such as wild boars, monkeys, deer and leopards start coming down from the slopes. Authorities said locals would also be unwilling to evacuate until they saw molten lava flowing down the mountain and noticed an increase in temperature.

Sultan Calls For Evacuation

Yogyakarta Governor Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono X, who some locals believe has direct connections to the gods of Merapi, on Tuesday warned that an eruption could occur within the next seven to 10 days. "Therefore, I ask the Sleman district administration to soon evacuate the people living in villagers areas close to Mount Merapi to lessen the risk of casualties," he was quoted as saying by Antara.

He asked the Sleman administration to prioritize the evacuation of residents in 10 villages: Kinahrejo, Palemsari, Kalitengah, Kaliadem, Ngangkrah, Tritis, Turgo, Boyong, Tunggul Arum and Ngandong because they are prone to the eruption.

The Sultan also called on residents of Cengkringan subdistrict to evacuate. "The sooner they leave their homes the better is."

He expressed concern that an evacuation would be too late if conducted once Merapi reaches Alert 4 status, as lava flows much faster than people, particularly the elderly, can flee to safety.
The Sultan called on villagers to also start evacuating their livestock, although he said farmers could still work on their land, provided they return at night to the shelters provided by the local administration.


The Social Affairs Ministry has prepared a Rp400 billion three-month contingency plan in anticipation of a possible eruption. Social Affairs Minister Bachtiar Chamsyah said the funding, taken from the state budget's Rp3 trillion disaster response fund, could be increased to Rp600 billion if insufficient.

He said his ministry has prepared emergency food stocks, including 100 tons of rice for the regencies of Sleman, Magelang and Boyolali. The fund is also being spent on securing cooking oil, clean water, torches, megaphones and generators.

Chamsyah said he plans to visit Dukun village in Magelang regency, which could be among the areas worst hit in the event of an eruption.

Separately, Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari said her office had prepared bodybags and advised doctors from Yogyakarta and Solo to be prepared for a possible emergency. The Sardjito Yogyakarta Public Hospital has placed 30 doctors, 30 nurses and several ambulance teams on alert.

Merapi, which literally means 'mountain of fire', has experienced at least 68 major eruptions since 1548. In 1672, an eruption killed an estimated 3,000 people. Other notable eruptions occurred in 1930 (1,300 people killed), 1979 (60 killed), 1994 (66 killed by scorching heat clouds), and 2001 (2 killed).

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