Saturday, October 07, 2006

After evacuating due to volcano eruption, looting is the next threat

An erupting volcano in Papua New Guinea has prompted a mass evacuation of Rabaul with local officials fearing looters will descend on the emptied town tonight.

Under heavy ash falls and sharp volcanic shock waves, an estimated 2,000 people today left Rabaul on the eastern tip of the island of New Britain but so far there were no reports of injuries.
Police reserves have been called in and armed police patrols have been stepped up to deter looters.

Mt Tavurvur on Rabaul's outskirts erupted about 8.45am (0845 AEST) sending up huge plumes of ash and causing shock waves that rattled and broke windows in the town.

By late afternoon the vigorous volcanic activity had subsided.

Rabaul Chamber of Commerce President and hotelier Bruce Alexander said around 90 per cent of Rabaul's population left town, leaving behind only essential personnel.

"We are going to have looting problems tonight we think, there are already quite a few people up in the bush we're getting reports of, with pinch bars and the whole lot. It's not over yet.

"The good people will stay away and the bad dudes will come in.

"We've told all the lads on the street, there's a curfew tonight and don't show your face."

In 1994, big eruptions of Tavurvur and nearby Vulcan destroyed much of Rabaul with minimal loss of life because of timely evacuations, but heavy looting did occur.

PNG's Mining Department said in a volcano bulletin today that ash had fallen over a wide area including the town of Kokopo across the Simpson Harbour from Rabaul.

Thunder and lightning were reported within the ash column which had risen to around 10,000 metres though the full height of the mushroom cloud could not be determined.

Alexander said the worst part was a "dramatic percussive effect" in which roller doors were blown off their tracks and doors shook.

"It shakes the whole hotel and it's like being directly underneath an artillery barrage."

The Rabaul Volcanological Observatory reported a window blown in by a volcanic air blast and said more damage was expected closer to Tavurvur.

An observatory officer said the eruption was expected to to continue subsiding and monitors did not anticipate it would turn into a major one like 1994.

Bev Martin, a proprietor of the Rapopo Plantation Resort across the water from Rabaul, said this afternoon that everything had been obscured by falling ash.

"We can't see anything. It's just really cloudy and dark and dusty.

"We just hear it going off all the time, big exploding noises."

Martin said people who went through the 1994 eruption were not too worried by the latest eruption but new people in town might be more concerned.

All flights into Tokua Airport across the harbour from Rabaul have been cancelled because of the ash falls.

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