Volcanic activity spurs evacuation
Indonesians on island of Java are told to leave
MOUNT KELUD, Indonesia - Tens of thousands of people were ordered by police - some at gunpoint - to leave their homes on the slopes of one of Indonesia's deadliest volcanoes yesterday after a series of underground tremors heightened fears of an imminent eruption.
Scientists raised the alert at Mount Kelud to the highest level earlier this week, pointing to sharply rising temperatures in the lake of its crater and violent rumbling beneath.
There was an hour-long spike in the underground tremors and temperature yesterday when gas or magma tried to break through the crater lake, said Surono, a government volcanologist who goes by only one name. The activity then subsided.
"Anything could happen anytime now," he said, noting that a similar pattern emerged days before the last major eruption in 1990. Surono said he was afraid that pressure behind the magma would build up again, causing an explosion. The 1990 eruption of Mount Kelud, on Indonesia's densely populated island of Java, killed dozens. In 1919, a powerful explosion of the volcano destroyed dozens of villages and killed at least 5,160 people.
Authorities ordered 116,000 people living along the volcano's fertile slopes to leave their homes yesterday, but many have refused, saying they needed to tend to their crops and animals and protect against possible looting. Police forced many people to leave at gunpoint.
"If we didn't force them - in this case with a showing of firearms - the villagers would not budge," said Colonel Tjuk Basuki, the police chief, adding that residents have been repeatedly warned about the danger.
Sugeng Walujo, a 37-year-old villager, was among those who said they did not plan to leave. He, like many others, said he believes he will be protected if he follows the guidelines of an ancient myth. "If I don't scream for help or turn on any lights, the lava and ashes will not reach my home," he said.
Many people who left the mountain were staying in temporary shelters along its base. Some held Islamic prayers in a tent yesterday.
The UN said the World Health Organization has activated 100 medics, put 200 health facilities on alert, and established 41 outreach health posts because of the volcano. Emergency health kits, masks, and other equipment were distributed.
Sally Kuhn Sennert, a volcanologist with the US Geological Survey and the Smithsonian Institution's Global Volcanism Program , said rising temperatures in the crater lake, an increase in the size and intensity of gas plumes, and a change in the ground tilt - all currently observed at Mount Kelud - indicate there might be an eruption, but they do not guarantee one.
"The temperature has fluctuated in the past without an eruption," she said. However, she added that Kelud has also erupted before without warning, indicating authorities were probably correct in taking precautions.