Tsunami and volcano response: Indonesia assesses back-to-back disasters

A volcanic eruption in Central Java sent thousands of panicked villagers fleeing from their homes as government officials attempted to assess the full damage from an tsunami in western Indonesia that killed more than 100 people less than 24 hours earlier.

Gembong Nusantara/AP
A volunteer watches as Mount Merapi spews volcanic smoke in the background in Kaliadem, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on Oct. 26. Indonesia's most volatile volcano started erupting Tuesday, after scientists warned that pressure building beneath its dome could trigger the most powerful eruption in years.

A volcanic eruption on Java, Indonesia's most populous island, sent thousands of panicked villagers fleeing from their homes as government officials attempted to assess the full damage from a tsunami in western Indonesia that killed more than 100 people less than 24 hours earlier.

Officials in Central Java were responding to the eruption late Tuesday of Mount Merapi, one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes. Volcanologists who had been monitoring Merapi since last week raised the alert status to its highest level Monday, ordering thousands of people living within six miles of the crater to evacuate.

Off the coast of Sumatra, roughly 1,100 miles away, Indonesian emergency responders were still assessing the impact of Monday's tsunami. The head of Indonesia’s disaster management agency, Wisnu Wijaya, said the local government sent a rapid response team Tuesday afternoon with basic medical supplies and communication equipment to determine what was needed on the remote Mentawai Islands, where a 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck late Monday night triggering a 10-foot-high tsunami that displaced thousands land left more than 500 missing.

The islands are located 175 miles from Padang city on Sumatra, where a powerful 7.6-magnitude quake last year killed nearly 1,200 people. Monday’s temblor jolted the west coast of Sumatra, setting off early warning systems installed as part of the government’s rapid response plan for natural disasters.

But because of they island’s remoteness, reports on the extent of the damage only began to trickle in late Tuesday. Wijaya said high waves and poor access to communications posed problems for rescuers trying to reach the Mentawais, a rugged island group that is popular with surfers but otherwise rarely visited.

An official with the regional branch of the Department of Fisheries, told Reuters that 80 percent of the houses in the area were damaged and food supplies were low.

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The national government said it was prepared to assist the local disaster response team as needed. As of Tuesday evening information was still very spotty. The local disaster team reported it was having trouble reaching the islands to perform needs assessments. Still, officials seemed to be in action and organized. Wijaya said he was confident the government which is tasked with response was capable of managing assistance to the islands.

Merapi eruption

Central Java officials warned Tuesday that a lava dome containing pressurized gas could collapse, sparking an explosion far worse than the one in 2006 that killed two people.

Many residents heeded the warning, but thousands more remained near the volcano to watch over their homes and livestock.The slopes of volcanoes provide some of the most fertile soil in Indonesia, creating high population densities in vulnerable areas like the one around Merapi.

Officials with loudspeakers were encouraging thousands to escape the area as hot gas and ash continued to spew from the volcano’s mouth, according to AFP.

Surono, the head of Indonesia’s Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation Center, said people in the area were familiar with the dangers posed by Merapi, which threatens to erupt every few years.

The government had already prepared some emergency shelters in anticipation of an eruption. But by daylight many residents who evacuated during the night had returned to care for their crops and cattle on the volcano’s slopes.

Merapi continued to send up clouds late into the night, and scientists said the volcano contained more energy than during previous blasts. An eruption in 1994 sent streams of rock and hot gas down the sides of the mountain, killing more than 60 people. Its deadliest eruption occurred in 1930.

Indonesia and its 240 million people sit on the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area of high tectonic activity that holds most of the world's active volcanoes and has the highest frequency of earthquakes.

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