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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Under the Volcanoes

Pacaya and Tungurhua erupting

No sooner than we are putting all our gear into packs and bags, chaos strikes in the form of two volcanoes en route, Pacaya in Guatemala and more troubling for the next week, 16,000 ft Tungurahua or "throat of fire" in Ecuador, both requiring several thousand people to be evacuated. Guayquil airport was closed and some flights in and out of Quito as well and the news reports claimed Banos the town we are staying in en-route down to the Amazon and back, was being voluntarily evacuated. (Xinhua, BBC)

The authorities temporarily closed the airport in Guayaquil, where the runway was covered in ash, and diverted planes heading there to Quito and Manta. Officials also altered some flight routes to avoid the plume, including Lima-Quito and domestic routes between the capital and Guayaquil and the Andean city of Cuenca. The national director of civil aviation, Fernando Guerrero, told Reuters that the Guayaquil airport would reopen later once the runway had been cleared. The authorities have moved to safety about 500 families in five communities close to Tungurahua, officials said, while an unknown number of people left the area of their own accord. "At the moment we are keeping a yellow alert in effect for the area," said Fausto Chunata, mayor of the nearby town of Penipe, adding that they might order more evacuations later. Banos, a town popular with foreign and local tourists, was among the places evacuated voluntarily, officials said.

So I sent off an e-mail to the hostel Transilvania in Banos and got a reasonably reassuring reply "nothing serious is going on there are no disruptions to travel here villages that are on the volcano it self were evacuated, and I believe soon people would go back if they are not already doing that, because the volcano is pretty calm right now."

That is not to say that molten lava isn't dribbling down its sides and great rumblings throwing out room sized rocks and ash clouds 10 km into the air aren't happening. People writing from there earlier in the year say things like "i am typing this from banos... get the odd boom from the volcano.. but nothing effecting banos..."

Tungurhua from Banos in various moods

Here's an intriguing research report on the last evacuation in 1999, since which the volcano has been continuously active, with several more recent eruptions. I guess one can see why Itai at the Transilvania is saying everything is fine:

In 1999, the entire population of tourism-dependent Baños, Ecuador, some 16,000 people, was evacuated in anticipation of a violent eruption of Mount Tungurahua. Subsequently, many areas in the risk zone experienced heavy ash falls, lahars, and landslides, although no cataclysmic events occurred. Many small rural communities were also evacuated. While these communities became impacted by the hazard, Baños avoided most direct effects. Conditions for all evacuees were grim, and their conditions compounded because Ecuador was simultaneously undergoing profound economic and political crises. Absent livelihood alternatives, community leaders from Baños organized a return to their town even though it remained under an evacuation order. An aggressive campaign brought tourists and more residents back and Baños revived economically; however, this was achieved at the cost of hazard awareness among both groups, tourists and residents, and public safety became compromised.

The 1999 evacuation of Banos with the town's empty streets

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