Indonesia stares down another volcano

Mt. Merapi vented smoke Monday as authorities put into motion evacuation plans developed from past experience.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

As the road rises abruptly toward Mt. Merapi, traffic thins except for a steady stream of trucks carrying refugees out of reach of the erupting volcano. Since the 9,700-foot Mt. Merapi stirred to life last month, the government has been preparing to evacuate 22,450 people living in the path of fast-moving pyroclastic flows that could sweep down the mountain.

The evacuation kicked into high gear over the weekend after Indonesian authorities issued their highest-level alert. And the mountain sent its own warning signal Monday, venting hot, grey smoke that created a 2.5-mile plume.

Police and military officials are going door-to-door to enforce a mandatory evacuation order. At least 5,000 refugees were pulled from the mountain on trucks and minibuses and relocated to 23 shelters in Java's lowlands near the city of Yogyakarta, a hub of Indonesia's most populous island.

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As in other run-ups to eruptions, some villagers have insisted on staying. Other men are still making day trips to tend farms and livestock at the foot of the volcano. However, authorities expect their evacuation plan to work better than previous efforts, given the volcano's gradual buildup to an eruption and the additional experience handling such emergencies.

Unanticipated eruptions, such as a collapsing lava dome in 1994 on Mt. Merapi, have killed more than 60 people from scalding volcanic gasses that cascaded into the small village of Turgo. Since then, improved communications, volcanic monitoring technology, and exhaustive planning are boosting the confidence of officials handling the daunting logistical feat.

"There is no problem with the evacuation process," said Nurbandi, Pakem's regional evacuation coordinator, on Sunday. "Preparation this year is better than before.... People want to be evacuated to safe areas."

But some snags have already emerged. Temporary shelters in converted classrooms and government offices have shown signs of overcrowding. Some operate at more than double their capacity while others are merely sweltering, military-style tents in dusty parking lots. Women and children in the centers spend days evading the heat and waiting for male relatives to return from tending farms and livestock.

"My husband and I sell satay [grilled meat] as our job," says Lis, a woman in the town of Pakem's shelter. She scoops handfuls of spiced potatoes and green beans from an enormous silver pot that will feed thousands of newcomers arriving in the camp. "We're totally without income. We rely only on the government's help to live."

The poor farmers, herders, and small merchants straddle a world between myth and modernity underscoring the difficulty of an evacuation plan that relies as much on technologies like bamboo 'sirens' - blocks of wood hit to make noise - spaced throughout the forest as fleets of trucks, cars, and helicopters.

"I'm not worried," says Budi Raharjo, 73, who has seen more than four eruptions. "I don't want to move down the mountain until I hear the small eruptions. I think what will happen is God's will."

While evacuation planning has been more extensive than in 1994, follow-through in the months and years after an eruption also needs to be improved, say villagers.

Following more than 60 deaths in Turgo in 1994, refugees received land and free housing in safer areas. But within four months, say residents and government officials, villagers had begun to leave. "One by one, they returned home," says Christian Awuy, a guide on Mt. Merapi, shaking his head. "The government had a good plan, but afterward there was no maintenance ... or control."

Mr. Awuy worries that unchecked development is spoiling the mountain environment and ultimately putting more people at the base of the active volcano. Among the most striking projects is the $40 million Volcano World, scheduled to open later this year. The joint venture between the Indonesian government and a French firm features a hotel, spa, observation dome, and quake chamber that recreates dangers which now seem all too real.

Awuy says the resort could trigger over-development in the town of Kaliurang where area businesses expect a million tourists annually by the end of the decade.

"[Development] has come like water," he says. "And it keeps coming."

Yanik Lutfiah contributed to this report.

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