Tue, Sep 20, 2011 - Page 5 News List

Farmers flee as the world’s deadliest volcano rumbles

AP, MOUNT TAMBORA, Indonesia

Bold farmers in Indonesia routinely ignore orders to evacuate the slopes of live volcanoes, but those living on Tambora took no chances when history’s deadliest mountain rumbled ominously this month.

Villagers like Hasanuddin Sanusi have heard since they were young how the mountain they call home once blew apart in the largest eruption ever recorded — an 1815 event widely forgotten outside their region — killing 90,000 people and blackening skies on the other side of the globe.

So, the 45-year-old farmer did not wait to hear what experts had to say when Mount Tambora started being rocked by a steady stream of quakes. He grabbed his wife and four young children, packed his belongings and raced down its quivering slopes.

“It was like a horror story, growing up,” said Hasanuddin, who joined hundreds of others in refusing to return to their mountainside villages for several days despite assurances they were safe.

“A dragon sleeping inside the crater, that’s what we thought. If we made him angry — were disrespectful to nature, say — he’d wake up spitting flames, destroying all of mankind,” he said.

The April 1815 eruption of Tambora left a crater 11km wide and 1km deep, spewing an estimated 400 million tonnes of sulfuric gases into the atmosphere and leading to “the year without summer” in the US and Europe.

It was 10 times more powerful than Indonesia’s much better-known Krakatoa blast of 1883 — history’s second-deadliest. However, it doesn’t share the same international renown, because the only way news spread across the oceans at the time was by slowboat, Tambora researcher Indyo Pratomo said.

In contrast, Krakatoa’s eruption occurred just as the telegraph became popular, turning it into the first truly global news event.

The reluctance of Hasanuddin and others to return to villages less than 10km from Tambora’s crater sounds like simple good sense, but it runs contrary to common practice in the sprawling nation of 240 million — home to more volcanoes than any other in the world.

Even as Merapi, Kelut and other famously active mountains shoot out towering pillars of hot ash, farmers cling to their fertile slopes, leaving only when soldiers load them into trucks at gunpoint. They return before it is safe to check on their livestock and crops.

Tambora is different.

People here are jittery because of the mountain’s history — and they are not used to feeling the earth move so violently beneath their feet. Aside from a few minor bursts in steam in the 1960s, the mountain has been quiet for much of the last 200 years.

Gede Suantika of the government’s Center for Volcanology said activity first picked up in April, with the volcanic quakes jumping from less than five a month to more than 200.

“It also started spewing ash and smoke into the air, sometimes as high as 1,400 meters,” he said. “That’s something I’ve never seen it do before.”

Authorities raised the alert to the second-highest level two weeks ago, but said only villagers within 3km from the crater needed to evacuate.

That did not stop hundreds of men, women and children living well outside the danger zone from packing their clothes, jewelry and important documents and heading to the homes of family and friends elsewhere on Sumbawa Island.

“We’ve urged them to go back to harvest their crops, get their kids back in school, but we’re having a hard time,” said Syaifullah, a community chief in Pekat, at the foot of the 2,700m mountain.

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