Thousands Flee After Repeated Eruptions On Sumatra's Mt. Sinabung
November 15, 2013

Thousands Flee After Repeated Eruptions On Sumatra’s Mt. Sinabung

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Several thousand people have been evacuated from the Tanah Karo district of North Sumatra following a volcanic eruption on Mount Sinabung. The volcano, which has emitted several sizeable eruptions over the past few months, is now threatening 10 nearby villages in the region, with fears of pyroclastic flow and hot ash raining down from above.

Following Thursday’s eruptions, one that was reported at around 6:57 am local time and another at 11:54 am, as many as 5,500 people were moved to rescue shelters. The villages affected by Thursday’s eruptions include Simacem, Bekerah, Suka Meriah, Gurukinayan, Mardinding, Sigarang-garang, Berastepu, Hutagunggung, Laukawar and Gamber.

The first eruption Thursday morning sent ash as high as 23,000 feet into the atmosphere. The second eruption shortly before noon sent ash spewing nearly 16,500 feet in the air.

“That makes the second eruption of Mount Sinabung for today,” National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told Jakarta Globe (JG) after the second eruption. “The volcanic activity remains high, so there is still potential for further eruption. There have been no fatalities.”

Sutopo warned that the volcano has remained highly volatile, having erupted sporadically over the last few weeks and there exists the potential for continued activity. He maintained that an emergency response period will remain in effect until at least Saturday.

“We hope the public will follow our calls to avoid the area. Our observations still show that the mountain is still active,” he told JG.

Among those taking shelter at evacuation sites is Replika Sitepu, who told reporters that during the day he returns to his home.

"When I arrived at my village to change my clothes and water my cabbage farm, suddenly I felt a tremor and heard a sound," he said. "I decided to come here and I saw the volcano eruption."

Mount Sinabung, which roared to life in August 2010, had remained inactive for over 400 years, last erupting around 1600. It erupted again two more times in early September, followed by its largest eruption on September 7, 2010 before returning to sleep.

The volcano remained largely inactive again until September 2013 when an eruption sent 1,500 citizens fleeing to local shelters. Then, after another short period of rest, Mt. Sinabung again roared to life earlier this month with more eruptions.

"Actually since the agency put the status of volcano on alert on November 3, there were more than 40 eruptions," noted Hendra Gunawan, an observation official in Sumatra, in a statement to ABC Online.

The Center for Vulcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation has raised the volcano’s status to alert level three, recommending people do not approach the volcano and remain at least 2 miles from the crater.

Jhonson Tarigan, a spokesman for the Karo regency administration, told Jakarta Post that Gamber was the last village to be evacuated on Thursday after a pyroclastic cloud was headed in that general direction.

“We have run out of supplies. We don’t know when the eruptions will stop so that evacuees can return to their homes,” he said, hoping donors would come forward with aid.

The eruptions in recent weeks are also taking a toll on the region’s farming industry, with crops so badly damaged with ash that many may not survive the ordeal.

“The total loses [sic] for local farmers in the area could be in the billions of rupiah,” Makmur Sanjaya Sembiring, a farmer from Naman Teran subdistrict in Tanah Karo, told JG.

Crops including lettuce, tomatoes, chili peppers, cabbage, potatoes and oranges are among those affected by the falling ash.

“The area of damaged farms is estimated to reach up to tens of thousands of hectares. The majority of local residents here are farmers, and at the moment, the people have been badly affected by the volcano’s eruptions,” Makmur said.

The volcano could likely cost the region’s local chili pepper industry in excess of $1.82 million US. The tomato industry looks likely to take a similar hit to the pocket. Meanwhile, cabbage farmers may see the biggest losses, said Makmur.

Additionally, he noted potato production in the area, which sees upwards of 30 tons per hectare in a typical season, had declined 50 percent as a result of the recent eruptions; chili production had declined 30 percent.

“The condition of farmers in this area is very worrying. Aside from being forced to evacuate, their farms can no longer be used, and they had to use bank loans to develop their farming businesses in the first place,” Makmur told JG.

Mount Sinabung is one of nearly 130 active volcanoes in Indonesia, which makes up part of the “Pacific ring of fire.”