Living in the shadow of 'El Popo'
For the past few weeks, Mexico's Popocatepetl volcano has spewed ash and belched molten rocks.
The prospect of living under a live volcano that regularly spews plumes of ash and the occasional hot rocks might not sit well with a lot of people.Skip to next paragraph
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But for Roman Sandoval Jimenez, whose small town lies on the slopes of Mexico's smoking Popocatepetl volcano, there are a lot of worse things in life.
"We could all move away to the city, but there we'd live with crime and daily tension," says Mr. Sandoval, a town council member in Xalitzintla, one of several small corn-growing communities within Popocatepetl's high-risk radius. "Here, we've learned to live with our old friend's threats."
Indeed Popocatepetl's belchings and rumblings are nothing new. The normally snow-trimmed peak takes its name from what means "mountain that smokes" in the Nahuatl Indian language. Pre-Columbian relics still found around the volcano's crater offer proof that humans have watched and interpreted the smoking peak for millenniums.
But today Popocatepetl - called simply "El Popo" by the millions of Mexicans who live within viewing distance of the graceful peak - is the southeastern backdrop for Mexico City, one of the world's largest population centers. So the fact that El Popo has recently stepped up its activity is more than just a geological curiosity. Over the past few weeks, it has regularly sent thick billowy towers of gray ash miles into the sky, while spitting incandescent rocks several miles around its bubbling crater. Gravel-size deposits have fallen on some neighborhoods of the city of Puebla about 20 miles east.
All this, plus the formation of a magma dome within Popo's crater (indicating the potential for bigger things to come) has led Mexico's civil defense and disaster prevention authorities to ratchet up their Popo alert. No one is being allowed within 6.25 miles of the smoking mountain. The 70,000 people who live in towns like Xalitzintla just outside that perimeter are being drilled in evacuation procedures.
Beyond that, the half-million people who live in Popo's mid-risk radius - including the southeastern outskirts of Mexico City - are receiving information through schools, radio, and door-to-door handouts on what to do in the case of a heavy ash fall.
"The population growth hasn't been adequately controlled in areas of high and medium risk, and people living there aren't going to leave now, so the answer is to teach how to live with a volcano," says Carlos Valdes Gonzalez, director of volcanic risks for Mexico's National Center for Disaster Prevention (Cenapred).
It was Cenapred's scientific volcano review team that moved the Popo alert from yellow-2 to yellow-3 earlier this month. Yellow-3is just below red, which accompanies a major eruption and triggers evacuation of the high-risk zones.
Mr. Valdes says the population and roads generally are ready for a sudden red alert. And conversations with dozens of residents of El Popo's high-risk zone appear to uphold that conclusion.