Quake recovery efforts overshadowed by volcano

Thousands of Indonesians, already shaken from an earthquake last month, were evacuated from the slopes of a trembling volcano as it threatened to spark a second emergency on Wednesday.

More than 15 000 people have been whisked from the slopes of Mount Merapi, which has been on red alert since May 13, but has cranked up activity since the May 27 quake. The alert signals it may be on the brink of eruption.

Officials, meanwhile, revised the death toll from the 6,3-magnitude quake on the island of Java slightly upwards to 5 855, while the number of people left homeless soared to over 400 000.

There was no official explanation from the authorities for the 73 new recorded deaths, but local reports said some people had died in hospital from their injuries.

“Overall, relief operations continue in full swing in all areas—food, shelter, sanitation, water et cetera,” Amanda Pitt from the United Nations’s coordination office in Yogyakarta—the main city in the quake zone—told Agence France-Presse.

Pitt said Merapi, which lies about 30km north of Yogyakarta, the main city in the quake zone, was being considered as part of the overall emergency response.

“The UN system, humanitarian organisations, everybody is working on these two things together. They have an eye on Merapi as well [as the quake area] and everyone is well aware of it,” she said.

She said new trucks were being brought in by some organisations to assist with transport as local authorities were retaining vehicles for evacuation purposes.

Meanwhile, campaigns to vaccinate more than a million Indonesians against measles and tetanus were launched.

“About 100 children under five were given measles vaccinations and 100 adults were given anti-tetanus vaccines.
It’s just a starter,” spokesperson for the UN’s World Health Organisation Harsaran Pandey said from Yogyakarta.

David Hipgrave, head of the UN children’s fund health programme, told AFP that 320 000 children were being targeted in central Java and Yogyakarta. He said at least 1,2-million people aged 15 to 60 were expected to receive tetanus shots over the next fortnight.

And seeking to head off a potential second emergency, authorities evacuated 15 368 residents from the western, southern and south-eastern flanks of menacing Merapi by late on Tuesday, official data showed.

The bulk came from the Magelang district in Central Java, with 8 836 people shifted to safety, said Yulianto from the disaster management centre there.

“We are continuing the evacuation efforts today [Wednesday],” he said, adding that authorities were planning to move a total of 11 000 people.

In the Klaten district, 3 500 people from three villages highest on the south-eastern slopes have been evacuated. The rest of the evacuees were in Sleman district in Yogyakarta province to the south.

Vulcanologists said on Wednesday that the volcano appeared to have quietened down but warned that the lull should not be misinterpreted as a sign of calm.

The volcano spewed eight torrents of heat clouds and 20 lava trails in the first six hours of Wednesday. On Tuesday, the mountain spewed 78 heat clouds and 219 lava flows, which reached down 2km.

“It is true that the activities of Merapi appear to have slowed down this morning, but that means nothing,” said Subandriyo from the vulcanology office in Yogyakarta.

“The activities of the volcano can fluctuate and it does not mean that Merapi’s activities are slowing down for good.”

He said that the lava dome at the top of Merapi continued to grow. If the dome collapses, it would send massive amounts of magma and other volcanic debris flying down its slopes, scientists have warned.

Subandriyo said that, hypothetically, a full moon due on June 12 could exert some influence on the dome.

“If the dome is in a critical condition, even the slightest factor could have an effect,” he told AFP.

The gravitational pull of a full moon, he said, had led to the most significant heat cloud torrents to be emitted by Merapi so far, on May 15.—AFP

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