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Up In Smoke

30 Oct 10
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I may have forgotten much of my childhood, but I think I will always remember that day in third grade when we learned that a classmate had lost his entire family to the Pittsfield (OH) tornado of 1965.

It was April 11th, Palm Sunday, and unsettled weather across much of the Midwest spawned 47 tornadoes in total. By the time the rains stopped, some 270 people were dead in at least four states. That weekend has gone down in history as the second biggest outbreak of tornadoes ever in the U.S.

Seven people died in nearby Pittsfield that weekend, including my friend’s family. He survived when his bed was blown through an outer wall. As I remember the story, he woke up in a bed balanced precariously in a ditch, with his home, and his life, in pieces all around him.

Every region suffers from its own mix of natural disasters – earthquakes in California, flooding along the Mississippi, wildfires for some and hurricanes for others. But knowing this still does not prepare you for the variety of natural disasters shared across most if not all of Indonesia. And these disasters can strike almost simultaneously, as they did recently here.

Less than two months after we arrived, Indonesia was hammered by an earthquake, a tsunami and a volcano, all within about a week of each other. And when it was all over, life went on for those left unscathed.

Indonesia sits smack dab on the Pacific Ring of Fire. The Ring is a horseshoe-shaped region starting around New Zealand, running through Indonesia and up the coast of Asia before swinging across to Alaska and heading south again along the U.S. left coast.

The Ring of Fire is a direct result of something called plate tectonics. The world’s continents sit on large plates that slide along the earth’s crust. Where those plates collide, and where they pull apart (areas called ‘faults’), earthquakes and volcanoes can happen. And there is nowhere on earth where these plates seem to bump and grind more than in this region.

The movement of these plates account for earthquakes (think San Andreas Fault in California), volcanoes and even sometimes tsunamis. And about 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur along the Ring.

Indonesia meanwhile records the most earthquakes in the world each year, and has as many as 129 active volcanoes, 22 of which are considered to be “on alert” for eruption. More than 6,500 people are killed on average by all natural disasters here each year, and yearly economic losses from such disasters range around 20 billion dollars.

All of this means that such things as earthquakes and volcano eruptions are if not common, then common-place enough to be met with resignation more than fear. It doesn’t mean of course that people are happy when deaths occur, just that they seem to treat them with more of a fatalistic attitude. And they know it probably won’t be too long before something else happens.

Volcanoes are of special interest to us, since one is still puffing ash to our east. Remember that carnival game, Whack-A-Mole? Think of Indonesia as a giant Whack-A-Mole board, with the volcanoes standing in as mole holes. Waiting for one to erupt is a bit like trying to decide where the mole will next appear.

Okay, that’s certainly a silly analogy – but you get the idea. And if you need more proof, take a look at this “Seismicity” map from the USGS. There are a lot of volcanoes around here, and one erupted close by.

It was the end of October. For a week or more, Mt. Merapi, about 375km, or 230 miles east/southeast of us, had been showing signs of activity. Thousands of people living on its sides were evacuated as a precaution. But on October 26th, Merapi erupted. Hot gas clouds killed more than 30 people who had refused to leave. And for a couple of more weeks continuing eruptions caused about 400,000 people in total to leave their homes and move to temporary refugee camps. There have been more than ten eruptions in all, with ash clouds at times reaching 8km, or five miles high. The most powerful eruption, at least so far, occurred on November 5th.

President Obama, visiting Jakarta more than 400km from Merapi, had to cut short his visit to Indonesia, leaving before ash caused the cancelation of air traffic. And perhaps more importantly, two World Heritage sites (Borobudur and Prambanan) south of Merapi were both covered in a layer of ash the consistency of moist clay.

We are actually quite a distance from all the recent natural events. The earthquake and tsunami hit the island of Sumatra, the next major island to the west of us. And Merapi, while on the island of Java as we are, is still an eight hour drive away. But we awoke one morning to find a thin layer of ash on the streets of our neighborhood, and on the floor tiles in the garage. Our driver worries the ash will damage the car’s paint. And I’m worried about its effect on our lungs. But the ash quickly washed away, as did any concerns about it having a lasting impact on us. At least for now.

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