Indonesian President Visits Survivors After Volcanic Eruption

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Indonesia’s president on Tuesday visited areas devastated by a powerful volcanic eruption that killed at least 34 people and left thousands homeless, vowing that communities would rebuild quickly.

Clouds of hot ash shot into the sky and an avalanche of lava and scorching gas spread up to 11 kilometers (7 miles) down the slopes of Mount Semeru in a sudden eruption Saturday triggered by heavy rain. The towns and cities were covered by tons of volcanic debris.

President Joko Widodo visited the areas affected by the eruption in Lumajang district in East Java province to assure people that the government’s response is reaching those in need.

After visiting survivors in shelters on a soccer field, he vowed to rebuild infrastructure, including the main bridge connecting Lumajang with other cities, and to remove some 2,970 houses from danger zones.

Authorities previously said that residents of the worst-hit villages will be relocated in the next six months, and each family waiting for a new home will receive compensation of Rs 500,000 ($ 34.50) per month.

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 searching for 22 villagers reported missing. Almost 3,000 houses and 38 schools were damaged, he said.

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

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

The archived coordinator said that some search areas can only be reached by an articulated tracked vehicle operating on rough and rugged terrain, such as “Hagglund” vehicles.

Cargo planes carrying food, tents, blankets and other supplies landed Tuesday to be distributed to temporary shelters packed with about 4,250 displaced people.

The eruption of the 3,676-meter (12,060-foot) mountain relieved the pressure that had been building under a lava dome in its crater. But experts warned that the dome could collapse further, causing an avalanche of gas and debris trapped beneath it.

Relief workers struggled Tuesday to clear tons of volcanic debris and concentrated on three locations in the worst-hit village of Sumberwuluh, where people are believed to still be trapped in houses that were buried to the roofs, said Wayan Suyatna, who runs local search and salvage agency.

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

Semeru, also known as Mahameru, has erupted many times in the last 200 years. Still, as in many of the 129 volcanoes monitored in Indonesia, tens of thousands of people live on its fertile slopes. It last erupted in January, with no casualties.

Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 270 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity because it lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a series of horseshoe-shaped faults.

(AP)