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After Haiti and Chile, Is Costa Rica next in line for the "big one"?

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — In the aftermath of severe earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, many Costa Ricans have become a little jittery. Disaster officials and volcano experts raced today to muzzle rumors that Costa Rica could see the "big one," whether in a massive earthquake or disastrous volcanic eruption.

Costa Rica is considered one of the most seismically active countries in the world. Tremors are common. But after the historically deadly events in the region, this country's harmless little jitters are becoming a bit more terrifying. I experienced this last Friday night, when a 4.3 magnitude jolt shook my eastern San José living room — I froze.

False alarms are no laughing matter. Somehow a rumor quickly spread early today that the National Emergency Commission (CNE) had issued a warning that an earthquake would hit within the next 24 hours. The commission sent out a news statement to dispel the bogus warning.

However, even the language of the statement was somewhat disconcerting because it did not say that a disaster is impossible. It just said, come on, we couldn't predict that kind of thing if we wanted to.

"The president of CNE, Vanessa Rosales, explained that although our territory is prone to the occurrence of earthquakes, there isn't any existing technology or enough scientific information that would allow one to predict this type of event in such a short timeframe as the one suggested in those (false) communiques," the statement read.

"The unfounded rumor, circulated by irresponsible people, has provoked great concern in the population of the whole Costa Rican national territory," it said.

In another pronouncement to debunk the rumors, seismology experts also included an ounce of painful truth, reminding the population that, well, yes, anything can happen. "It's no news that our country is located within an active tectonic atmosphere, which has been and will continue being affected by tremors and earthquakes, as well as volcanic activity," read a statement from the National Seismology Network (RSN) at the University of Costa Rica. The statement said the RSN "rejects outright" the prediction that disaster is near.

On the volcanic front, Turrialba volcano, about 20 miles northeast of San Jose, has been keeping scientists busy. In January it gave its biggest performance in more than a century, spewing gas and ash and causing dozens of evacuations. However, studies found no sign of magma ready to flow.

But this week, scientists heard "deafening, jet engine-like noises” at Turrialba, photographed a trace of reddish smoke oozing out of the volcano's crater and measured small seismic action occurring inside the 10,958 foot (3,340 meter) mountain. Yet even with these signals seismologists aren't ready to cry lava.

Good thing the authorities squashed that rumor, but the incident has also forced them to come clean and remind us that disasters will probably come without any warning at all. Now that's an unsettling fact.