(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Slow motion volcano tests disaster preparedness

A month after the last eruption, Mt Kelud continues to emit hot gases and lava and a lava dome is being created and rising in height. There is no certainty that the volcano will not erupt again.
Brennon Jones/IRIN

Local officials took action in September 2007 when Mt Kelud in the province of East Java, Indonesia, began showing signs it might erupt. They put into practice lessons learned from the December 2004 tsunami and from 1990, when Mt Kelud last erupted, killing 35 residents, destroying houses and cropland and covering much of the immediate area in up to 70 centimetres of ash.

“This time Mt Kelud was like a slow moving disaster,” Teguh Sylvaranto, vice-director of medical services for the East Java Provincial Hospital in Surabaya city, told IRIN.

“As the volcano gradually built up in pressure during September and October, our medical team and other agencies had time to identify strategies to deal with mass casualties, including the best routes for transporting the injured, and the potential needs of evacuees for food, water, sanitation and primary health care,” he said. “Much of our strategising was based on lessons learned in Aceh with the tsunami and more recent disasters.”

Several million people live in the vicinity of Mt Kelud and local disaster officials estimated that as many as 40,000 people would need to be evacuated from their rice, pineapple, sugarcane and vegetable farms near the summit of Mt Kelud if a modest eruption occurred. Thousands more would be displaced if it was a large-scale eruption and lava and debris started flowing down the long riverbeds and valleys to more populated areas.

On 16 October the Directorate for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Management alerted people to an imminent eruption. Some 22,000 were evacuated over subsequent days, according to BAKORNAS, the national coordinating agency for disaster management, although all but 10,000 or so soon returned home.

Sylvaranto’s medical response team was dispatched to Kediri District on 17 October and stayed until 11 November. It included 15 doctors, four-wheel drive ambulances to cope with potential muddy conditions, and stockpiles of medical supplies. It was part of a much larger medical response that included over 50 doctors and public health personnel and the Indonesian Red Cross.

On-the-job training


Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
Dr Teguh Sylvaranto, vice-director of medical services for the East Java Provincial Hospital, with some of the team of 15 doctors who he sent to Mt Kelud to provide medical assistance during the evacuation and train local medical staff


“We worked closely with the local regional and national organisations there,” he said. “In our down time, we even helped train primary health care staff, strengthening their capacities to manage and care for the evacuees.”

Deddy Sadria, head of SATLAK PB, the Disaster Operational Management Division for Kediri District, told IRIN: “We had long been planning for an eruption and were well prepared.” SATLAK PB also holds a yearly disaster preparedness drill with local organisations and their national and regional counterparts.

In his command centre in Kediri, the walls of which are covered with maps charting volcanic activity, giving evacuation routes and temporary shelter locations, Sadria shows IRIN his disaster bible, a blue booklet entitled The Guidebook for Procedures and Alert Activities. He said it was developed in conjunction with BAKORNAS and regional and local organisations after the 2004 tsunami. “It defines the roles each organisation plays, with one person in control for each response activity. It worked well!”

“Most of us probably wouldn’t have left the mountain until it blew,” said 45-year-old Tomo, a regional government officer and farmer who lives in the area evacuated. “But then the police came around with sirens and loudspeakers. No problems, everyone came down the mountain as told.”

Improved monitoring


Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
Deddy Sadria, head of SATLAK PB, the Disaster Operational Management Division for Kadiri District, at a map showing evacuation sites. He told IRIN, “We had long been planning for an eruption and were well prepared.”


“People know more about the dangers of the volcano now,” said Tomo, “and the monitoring of it has improved.” He said that in 1990 a system of land cables was used to convey information from the heart of the volcano and it did not work. “Now the detection equipment is much better and the information is sent by satellite.”

Boyrah, a 42-year-old shopkeeper, told IRIN: “The government took all the right precautions, particularly as the volcano was spouting fire.” She also said she was pleased transport was provided for the evacuation.

Sadria of Kediri District’s disaster centre, told IRIN: “We now have access to 285 trucks and buses that can each hold 30 or so people. And we also have military support if needed.”

Boyrah was evacuated to a mosque. “It was OK,” she said. “We were given enough food and I even had a mat on which to sleep.” Most evacuees stayed in tents, mosques, schools or public buildings. Local agencies provided non-food items and a stockpile of 100 tonnes of rice was provided by the Department of Social Affairs, a more-than-adequate supply for the 21-day evacuation.

Animist beliefs


Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
Mbah Ronggo, a 64-year-old rice farmer from Sugih Waras village, is the “keyholder” of the volcano. Selected to the position by 42 village elders, he is given great power to determine whether villagers should evacuate or not


Most residents of Mt Kelud’s hillsides are Muslim but animism still plays a powerful role in their lives. According to Tomo, some residents continue to hold mixed religious ceremonies at the volcano, much of them animist in content. “We pray, give thanks and pay our respects,” he said, adding “I am nothing compared to the size of the volcano.”

But such animist beliefs created a small hitch in the well-coordinated evacuation plans.

Mbah Ronggo, a 64-year-old rice farmer from Sugih Waras village, is what is known as the “keyholder” of the volcano. Selected to the position by 42 village elders, he is given great power to determine whether villagers should evacuate or not.

While the scientists said Mt Kelud was about to erupt, Ronggo believed otherwise. “My feeling from God was that it was not going to erupt,” he told IRIN. He said he gets a sign if it is serious. “I get this compulsion to sell the rice harvest if the volcano is actually going to erupt,” he said.

For a day or so after the evacuation order was given, Ronggo refused to leave the mountain and a large group of his followers refused as well, according to Sugih Waras villagers. Officials in Blitar District also acknowledged that many people were initially reluctant to evacuate.

Negotiating with the “keyholder”


Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
At the peak of Mt Kelud the trees and vegetation were burned away by hot gases and ash that erupted from the volcano on 3 November 2007


Disaster officials and the police came to negotiate with Ronggo, pleading that he and his followers leave. Only after two days did he agree. “I did not want to be seen as a provocateur,” he said.

Ronggo told IRIN that his concerns were not exclusively spiritual: “If the people evacuate,” he said, “our farm productivity drops and our livelihoods are affected.” He says no amount of temporary assistance can make up for that. “I’m also concerned that most of the assistance won’t even reach the people who need it,” he said.

A powerful eruption of ash and hot gases did ultimately occur on 3 November by which time locals were safely out of harm’s way, though all the trees and other vegetation were burned away at the top of the mountain. The volcano continues to smoulder.

When asked about their capacity to deal with a truly large-scale eruption, Sylvaranto said: “It’s not always a problem that can be solved by us alone on the district or provincial level, but we now have the coordination to get national departments and agencies to respond effectively and that will make a difference.” In any event, he said: “The response system is certainly far better now than three years ago.”

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