Covered in thick ash, the Patagonian community of Chaiten was a ghost town on Saturday as a volcano spewed ash a day after its first eruption in thousands of years forced nearly 4,500 people to flee.
Authorities have evacuated most of the southern Chilean town’s residents since Friday, sending many by boat to Chiloe Island farther north and to Puerto Montt on the mainland.
Some are staying in guesthouses, while schools have been turned into makeshift shelters packed with stores of bottled water after a blanket of volcanic ash contaminated ground water.
No more than 45 of Chaiten’s 4,500 residents remained in the town, Interior Minister Edmundo Perez said.
The snow-capped volcano — which shares its name with the town — erupted on Friday, triggering earth tremors and spewing a cloud of ash 3km into the air.
There is no record of the volcano erupting in the last 2,000 years, said Sernageomin, a government mining and geology agency.
Ricardo Larenas, 32, took his wife and two children to safety in Puerto Montt, then went back to protect their belongings.
“I came back here after living in Norway for 16 years. I brought a lot of money with me and frittered it away. My furniture workshop is all I have left,” he said.
Southern Chile is fragmented into hundreds of small islands and fjords. Some residents had never ventured from Chaiten itself until the 1,000m volcano 10km away forced them to go.
“I am amazed how big the continent is,” said Claudia, an elderly resident, on arriving by boat at the southern island of Chiloe, mistaking it for mainland Chile. “I have never left Chaiten before.”
She clasped a plastic bag containing a few basic items she had managed to salvage before being evacuated.
Technicians were dispatched to restore phone lines in the area, 1,220km south of the capital of Santiago, and to ensure electricity supplies while experts took water samples.
Before they were ferried to safety, some people in the area wore white surgical facemasks to avoid inhaling the ash that lay 15cm deep in some areas.
The National Emergency Office said volcanic activity continued, with fine ash falling. Visibility remained poor as ash clouded the skies and the smell of sulfur hung heavy in the air.
“The panorama here is pretty complicated,” Interior Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma said during a visit to the area. “We have completed the first phase of the operation, which was the evacuation of practically all of the local population. We don’t know if this is a situation that will last days, or weeks or even more.”
Schools were closed on Friday and hospitals treated people for irritated eyes and breathing difficulties.
Across the nearby border in Argentina, authorities in Chubut Province asked residents to avoid rubbing their eyes and to wear glasses and long sleeves to avoid ash making contact with skin. Two Argentinian airlines suspended flights because of a lack of visibility.
Chile’s 2,000 volcanoes include two of Latin America’s most active — Villarica and Llaima.
Scientists say some 500 are potentially active.
Llaima, about 700km south of Santiago, erupted on New Year’s Day, spewing ash and molten lava and forcing dozens of tourists and staff members to evacuate a wilderness park.