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.

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.

"Everybody around here is conscious of the danger, so you prepare for it," says Margarito de la Cruz, who with his father Remedio is bringing down burlap sacks of corn from the family's fields on El Popo's slope. "In every house, people keep important papers together and a supply of clothes ready, so you can get out in a hurry."

Margarito admits that it's still disconcerting when "the big mountain" starts rumbling and exploding. But after dozens of exhalations over recent weeks, he says one learns that not all of El Popo's noise is a threat. "Night is when you think about it the most," adds councilman and farmer Sandoval. "You wonder what happens if the big pop comes while everybody's asleep."

Disaster prevention officials claim that about 45,000 of the people living in the high-risk zone could be evacuated to safe shelters within two hours.

In past years some international volcano experts warned that Mexican disaster officials were not taking seriously enough El Popo's warning signs, like the formation of a lava dome in the crater. But El Popo is so closely monitored now, disaster officials insist, that chances of a surprise catastrophe are reduced.

"This is not like back in times when people heard and saw what the volcano was doing but really had no idea as to what that suggested might be coming," says Jacobo Soto Mendoza, chief of the State of Mexico's civil defense office on El Popo's western slope.

But the stakes are high since more than one-fourth of Mexico's population of 97 million people lives within an 85-mile radius of the crater. Says Cenapred's Valdes, "This is pretty much a unique situation - that so much of one country's population and economic activity is concentrated around an active volcano."

Mexico City residents and visitors who fear a Mount Vesuvius-type surprise of toxic volcanic gases can breathe easier, Valdes says. That won't happen. But what poses a real threat to the world's third-largest city is ash.

The Mexican capital got a glimpse of what that might mean on June 30, 1997, when ash from El Popo turned the city gray-white. Residents attempting to wash off roofs and sidewalks found the ash becomes mud when wet. "A heavy fall would clog up the whole city's drainage system," says Valdes. "All the waste water that is normally pumped out of the valley could have no place to go."

Volcanic ash also affects machines like car motors and airplane turbines. Noting cases where volcanic ash has been blamed for airplane crashes, Valdes says, "Mexico City's airport registers 800 takeoffs and landings a day, and all that could be affected by a heavy ash fall."

Yet such eventualities don't bother Hilaria Mateo, a Xalitzintla resident who says she remembers the last time El Popo woke up to spend a few years trembling and belching smoke, around 1920. "You could hold your hand out and see the ash collect on it," says the weathered, grayed woman sitting on a curb along Xalitzintla's central market.

"If it happens in the day, we will all think about leaving," she says serenely. "But what if it comes at night? Perhaps we won't even bother to interrupt our dreams."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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