Indonesian President visits volcanic eruption survivors

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The Indonesian president on Tuesday visited areas devastated by a powerful volcanic eruption that killed at least 34 people and left thousands homeless, and pledged communities would be quickly rebuilt.

Clouds of hot ash rose high in the sky and an avalanche of lava and scorching gas swept up to 11 kilometers (7 miles) down the slopes of Mount Semeru in a sudden eruption on Saturday triggered by strong rains. Villages and towns were covered with tons of volcanic debris.

President Joko Widodo has traveled to eruption-affected areas in Lumajang District, East Java Province, to reassure people that the government’s response is reaching those in need.

After visiting survivors in shelters on a soccer field, he pledged to rebuild infrastructure, including the main bridge connecting Lumajang to other towns, and to move around 2,970 houses out of danger areas.

Officials said earlier that residents of the hardest-hit villages will be relocated within the next six months, and each family waiting for a new home will receive 500,000 rupees ($ 34.50) per month in compensation.

National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman Abdul Muhari said more than 100 people were hospitalized after the eruption, 22 of them with serious injuries, mostly burns. He said rescuers are still looking for 22 missing villagers. Nearly 3,000 homes and 38 schools were damaged, he said.

The number of dead and missing is expected to rise as much of the search area is mountainous and “geographically difficult,” said Andris Rufianto Putro, field coordinator for the Semeru emergency response at the Indonesian Red Cross .

His teams on Tuesday recovered five bodies from the rubble of a house in the hamlet of Renteng, and two others found dead nearby, most of them burned down. Five other bodies were found in the nearby village of Supiturang.

The classified coordinator said some search areas could only be reached by an articulated tracked vehicle that operated over rough and rugged terrain, such as the “Hagglund” vehicles.

Cargo planes carrying food, tents, blankets and other supplies landed on Tuesday for distribution to temporary shelters filled with around 4,250 displaced people.

The eruption of the 3,676-meter (12,060-foot) mountain eased pressure that had built up under a lava dome in its crater. But experts warned the dome could collapse further, causing an avalanche of blister gas and debris trapped below.

Aid workers struggled on Tuesday to clear tons of volcanic debris and focused on three locations in the worst-hit village of Sumberwuluh, where people are still believed to be trapped in houses buried up to their rooftops, Wayan Suyatna said, who runs the local search and rescue agency.

“Volcanic ash deposits are always at high temperatures, and the deeper we dig, the hotter it gets,” Suyatna said.

Semeru, also known as Mahameru, has erupted several times over the past 200 years. Yet, like many of Indonesia’s 129 monitored volcanoes, tens of thousands of people live on its fertile slopes. It erupted for the last time in January, claiming no casualties.

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.

(PA)

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