Volcano threatens Chilean village

CHAITEN, Chile — It lay dormant for 9,000 years before erupting spectcularly without warning a year ago, spewing ash 12 miles into the air. And now, Chaiten volcano is threatening an entire town in Chile’s southern Patagonia region. Still, some residents of the town of Chaiten, the provincial capital, defy orders to move.

In February, the volcano exploded with renewed fury and split open a one-kilometer gap on the south side of the volcano’s dome, prompting the government to order an indefinite evacuation for the roughly 200 residents who had returned over the past year. Scientists say the volcano could remain active for decades.

Chilean officials also announced that this year they would begin to rebuild the provincial capital six miles to the north of Chaiten, in Santa Barbara, a coastal village with a port and high mountains to shield it from the volcano. They hope to resettle Chaiten residents in the new capital.

But about 70 Chaiten residents stubbornly refuse to leave, living day to day without running water or electricity, as their lawyers attempt to prevent the government from forcibly removing them.

Three days per week, the Naviera Austral company continues to provide a ferry boat to this largely isolated town (the Chaiten port remains the best way to access a main road that extends southward, deep into Patagonia). The police and soldiers who await the boats quickly escort new arrivals to the town’s outer limits, ushering them past a large road sign from rebellious residents that declares: “Welcome to Ground Zero. Zero Electricity, Zero Water, Zero Support. Long Live Chaiten!” 

The dusty streets are quiet now in what's become a virtual ghost town. At least 10 times a day, there are earthquakes, with recent tremors measuring as high as 4.2 on the Richter scale. Apart from the holdouts, most of the 7,000 people that formerly populated Chaiten have since sought refuge in other Chilean cities and towns. Some had completely lost their homes when a lahar, a mudslide generated by the accumulation of volcanic material, caused the Blanco River that runs through the center of town to overflow and flood vast areas.

Now, as the Southern Hemisphere winter months draw near, rainfall will significantly rise, bringing the threat of new floods.

But a local furniture maker, Baudilio Tacul, 60, said he moved to Chaiten 45 years ago with his father, and said to leave now would be worse than suicide. “Everything we have is in this place. Our livelihood, our homes. You can’t replace the tranquility we have.”

As for the the government warning that the volcano could ultimately cause the Blanco River to forever sink the entire town, Tacul said in an incredulous tone that the government is to blame. “They should have been here nine months ago building an embankment to stop floods.”

On a bridge over the Blanco River — a prime spot to view the volcano’s seemingly hourly dome collapses — Cristian Villegas, 33, the sole remaining volunteer fireman in town, said that when he sets off his alarm, everyone has six minutes to evacuate. If any inhabitants don’t reach the safety zone just outside of town, it will be Villegas’ job to ensure that they get there, possibly sacrificing his life in the process. “Every day I think about what will happen,” he said.

Officials are insistent that everyone must leave Chaiten permanently, but legally they can not do more than insist. In addition to a flood, the volcano dome could suffer a catastrophic collapse. “The pyroclastic flow from a volcano can travel downhill at 100 kilometers per hour,” said Luis Lara, a government volcanologist. “The town could be in flames in less than 10 minutes.”

The immense quantity of ash pumped out of the volcano a year ago also harmed several communities along the Chilean-Argentine border. In the river resort town Futaleufu, more than 90 miles to the east, ash damage to grazing areas and water sources caused large-scale deaths of cows and other livestock. Today, the impressive Futaleufu River and its scenic, surrounding landscape show few signs of damage, but volcanic ash lingers in the soil.

The surprising eruptions at Chaiten have prompted the government to figure out a way to increase the number of volcanoes it can monitor on a daily basis to 43 from eight. Chile has the world’s second-largest chain of volcanoes after Indonesia, with more than 2,000 volcanoes, about one-quarter of which are potentially active. Another volcano, the Llaima volcano in central Chile, has also seen significant eruptions over the past year.

At the El Rancho Supermarket on Diego Portales Street in Chaiten, Ingrid Ovando, 46, sits outside with a few stray dogs, and calmly watches as the dome collapses, again and again. “Yes, we are all afraid, but we have debts piling up. What will we do with our things if we leave?”

Ingrid’s friend, 61-year-old Carmen Mayorga, said that she's constantly preoccupied with thoughts of the volcano, and that she's had trouble sleeping. “I rent a room just outside of town now,” she said. 

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