Rain after volcanic eruption hampers Indonesia’s rescue efforts as death toll rises

Rescuers searched for survivors on Sunday on the slopes of the highest volcano on the Indonesian island of Java after it was rocked by an eruption that killed at least 14 people, as smoldering debris and thick mud hampered their efforts. efforts.

Mount Semeru in Lumajang District, East Java Province, spat thick columns of ash more than 12,000 meters into the sky, and burning gas and lava flowed down its slopes after a crash. sudden eruption on Saturday triggered by heavy rain.

Nearby villages and towns were covered in ash falls and several hamlets were buried under tons of mud from volcanic debris.

Authorities warned the thousands of people who fled the wrath of the volcano not to return during Sunday’s lull in volcanic activity, but some villagers were desperate to check the livestock and property left behind. In many areas, everything from the thinnest tree branch to the sofas and chairs inside the houses was covered with ash.

On Sunday, villagers walk by houses covered with volcanic ash in the village of Sumberwuluh, in the district of Lumajang. (Juni Kriswanto / AFP / Getty Images)

Debris and lava mixed with the precipitation to form thick mud that destroyed the main bridge connecting Lumajang and neighboring Malang district, as well as a smaller bridge, said Thoriqul Haq, the head of Lumajang district.

The eruption eased the pressure that had built up under a lava dome perched on the crater. But experts have warned the dome could still collapse, causing an avalanche of blister gas and debris trapped below.

The rain makes the dome collapse

A thunderstorm and rainy days, which eroded and partially collapsed the dome atop Semeru at 3,676 meters, triggered the eruption, said Eko Budi Lelono, who heads the center for geological studies.

He said streams of scorching gas and lava traveled up to 800 meters to a nearby river at least twice on Saturday. People were urged to stay five kilometers from the mouth of the crater, the agency said.

TV reports have shown people screaming and running under a huge cloud of ash, their faces wet from rain mixed with volcanic dust.

Despite an increase in activity since Wednesday, Semeru’s alert status has remained at the third-highest of four levels since its eruption began last year, and the Indonesian Volcanology Center for Mitigation geological hazards did not pick it up this week, Lelono said.

Semeru, the stratovolcano, is also known as Mahameru, which means “The Great Mountain” in Sanskrit. It has erupted several times over the past 200 years. Yet, as with other volcanoes – this is one of 129 under surveillance in Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago – more than 62,000 people inhabit the fertile slopes of Sumeru. The volcano erupted for the last time in January, claiming no casualties.

A man inspects a truck buried in ash Sunday following the Mount Semeru eruption in Lumajang district, East Java province, Indonesia. (Trisnadi / The Associated Press)

Indonesia, an archipelago of over 270 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity as it lies along the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, a series of fault lines in horseshoe shape. Currently, 54 percent of the country’s approximately 270 million people live in Java, the most densely populated area in the country.

Officials said earlier they hoped to avoid casualties by keeping a close watch on the volcano, but the death toll quickly rose from a late Saturday to 13 on Sunday morning.

Nearly 60 in the hospital

National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesperson Abdul Muhari said 57 people had been hospitalized, mainly for burns, respiratory problems and other injuries. He said rescuers were still looking for seven residents of Curah Kobokan village who were missing.

More than 900 villagers flocked to makeshift emergency shelters after Saturday’s powerful eruption, but many more defied official warnings and chose to stay at home, saying they had to take care of their livestock. and protect their property, said Haryadi Purnomo of the East Java Search and Rescue Team. agency.

“We will do everything possible to evacuate them by preparing trucks and motorcycles so that they can flee at any time,” Purnomo said.

He said his teams were looking for survivors on the southern slope of the mountain, but thick mud, smoking debris and heavy rain hampered the search. He described several once lush villages south of the crater as “death zones”.

“There is no life there… the trees, the farms, the houses are burned down, everything is covered in thick gray ash,” Purnomo said, adding that several other areas were virtually untouched. Search and rescue efforts were temporarily suspended Sunday afternoon over fears smoldering debris and hot ash could fall from the crater due to heavy rains.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Sunday he had tasked his ministers and military and disaster officials to coordinate the response.

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