Volcanic Eruption Forces Evacuations in Chile

Volcanic ash is raining down on Chile, 10 days after an eruption occurred for the first time in thousands of years. People in the area were evacuated. The volcano eruption has turned lakes and rivers white and coated plants in a dense layer of ash.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So we've reported on Myanmar, there's an earthquake in China, and in South America, the problem is a volcano. It's forcing people in Chile to flee entire towns, and volcanic ash is blowing across the Andes Mountains to Argentina.

NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Puerto Montt, a town near the crater.

JULIE MCCARTHY: For the past 9,000 years, Chaiten has remained quiet. But lifelong resident of the city of Chaiten, Eduardo Gallegos, says he says something was simmering on the volcano even before it covered the city in a cloud of ash in the early hours of May 2nd.

Mr. EDUARDO GALLEGOS: (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: We felt 50 tremors in the days leading up to the eruption, and the volcano was emitting flashes of light, he says.

Gallegos was one of the first evacuees from some 4,000 residents of Chaiten who were taken by boat to seek shelter in schools like this one in Puerto Montt, fleeing from nature's fury.

Chile has the world's second most active string of volcanoes behind Indonesia. They dot this stretch of Patagonia with its forests and fragile ecosystems and now fragile lives.

Elias Mesa says he would've stayed, had authorities not ordered him out.

Mr. ELIAS MESA (Resident): (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: My wife pleaded with me to come here, he says, and I arrived with just a knapsack, a blanket and a cat. I left behind my entire store, including a million pesos worth of cigarettes, he says.

(Soundbite of applause)

MCCARTHY: Well-wishers from a nearby town performed last night at the school to raise the fighting spirits of the evacuees. Their stay may be a prolonged one. The eruption of Chaiten has turned lakes and rivers a milky white and coated plants in a dense layer of ash.

Chaiten continues to build a column of ash and gas that shot more than eight miles high this weekend. Jorge Munoz heads the technical office of the National Geology and Mining Service monitoring the volcano. He says the dense flume could collapse in on the crater, creating lava-like pyroclastic flows destroying everything in their path.

Mr. JORGE MUNOZ (Head of Technical Office, National Geology and Mining Service): Very fast, very hot - Pompeii.

MCCARTHY: But Munoz says Chaiten has remained at the same level of seismic activity for the past week - a good sign, he says. The longer the volcano simmers, burning up energy, the likelihood of a catastrophe recedes.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Puerto Montt, Chile.

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