Sunday, May 14, 2006

Several villagers defy evacuation order!

Indonesian authorities on Saturday ordered the evacuation of thousands of residents near Mount Merapi, which has been rumbling for about a month. Increased lava flow during the past day and a new lava dome forming at the peak triggered immediate concerns.

"Clearly, it looks like it may be getting much worse," Michael Ramsey, associate professor in the Geology and Planetary Science Department of the University of Pittsburgh said.

"You can almost think of it as a cork in a bottle that's being shook up and the pressurization going on underneath there as the new lava moves up can only mean bad things," he said.

On Sunday, however, many villagers tried to return to their homes along the slopes of smoking Mount Merapi, news services reported.

"My feeling is it will not blow at this time," said Budi, in a report from The Associated Press. A 30-year-old farmer, Budi had come back to cut grass to give to his cows.

Still, scientists persisted in warning that people who remained in the eruption zone did so at their own peril.

"What the officials are saying is that we're going to have a larger eruption than what we're seeing right at the moment," Volcanologist Catherine Hickson of Thompson Rivers University in Canada said.

"We call them Merapian-style eruptions because essentially we have a dome that forms and we create these hot pyroclastic flows which kill people. So we actually name a style after this because it is so frequent."

A pyroclastic flow is a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano at several hundred miles an hour.

"Anyone or animal that is caught in its path is immediately essentially incinerated," she said.
Ramsey said the evacuations are crucial now, because once the dome collapses there can be "weeks to months" of pyroclastic flows, and it becomes very dangerous to get up on the volcano to evacuate anyone.

Ucip Bahagia, head of of one of the local crisis centers, said about 22,500 people will need to be evacuated. They will be taken to temporary shelters.

But the shelters were quickly becoming overcrowded, he said. The largest, which can comfortably house about 500 people, had more than 1,500. Authorities planned to move people into schools and government buildings, and were going to individual homes to evacuate them.

Ibnu Subianto, the top force commander for the evacuation, said there are about 5,100 evacuees in refugee camps. At least 4,056 of those people are from the highest risk area.

But local officials say the population of the highest risk area is about 4,500, which means some 450 people have not yet evacuated.

Most residents of the region in central Java province east of Jakarta are farmers, some of whom are reluctant to leave their land.

That's exactly what happened in the fatal eruption in 1994, according to Ramsey. He said once the lava begins flowing "it becomes an almost unlivable situation, even if you're a little bit farther away. The gases and ash become very, very bad."

With a peak measuring around 2,900 meters -- or 9,700 feet -- Merapi has been almost continuously active for nearly a decade.

NASA's Earth Observatory says Merapi's slopes are densely populated. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says as many as 80,000 people could be displaced if Merapi erupts, depending which way the lava flows.

The eruption in 1994 claimed at least 66 lives, and a 1930 eruption killed 1,370, according to NASA's Web site.

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