San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Future Uncertain for Volcano Dwellers

The jolts and spews continued this week at Costa Rica’s Turrialba volcano, about 40 kilometers northeast of San José, as the mountain began to release gas and ash through a new crater that formed at the end of the week.

For several families who were forced to leave their homes, the disruption followed them from their residences along the slope of the grumbling giant to the temporary shelters down the hillside.

Officials of the National Emergency Commission (CNE) said the government had ordered 40 people, who reside within six km of the main crater, to evacuate the area. Thirty-three of the evacuees spend their days in the Santa Cruz de Turrialba community center, an old barn with little more than a half-dozen picnic tables inside, and they slumber on cots and in sleeping bags in the Santa Cruz church next door. Local volunteers cook three meals daily for the evacuees.

Children play board games and kick soccer balls while parents mull around town and talk to neighbors, listen to the radio and wait for updates about the volcano’s behavior. For most of the evacuees, the temporary shelter is the only option.

Greivin Mora, 28, was evacuated from his home in El Retiro on Tuesday. The Costa Rican Red Cross picked up Mora, his two young children, his 22-year-old wife, and his father, 53, in an ambulance and drove them to the Santa Cruz community center.

Mora’s dad moved to El Retiro 13 years ago to live and work on a dairy farm. Mora has no other family to speak of and his wife’s parents were taken to a separate shelter in La Pastora, about a 10-minute drive from Santa Cruz.

“We aren’t really sure where we are going to go,” Mora said. “Right now we are just waiting and praying that everything will work out.”

On Saturday, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias visited the shelter in Santa Cruz and assured the evacuees that more assistance will be on the way shortly.

But for 27-year-old María Sumbrilla, who was evacuated from the town of La Central and is staying with family in La Pastora, more aid isn’t what families need. She said they just need access to their homes.

“We left a lot of important things in our home,” she said. “Our clothes, food, animals, its all up there and the National Police won’t let us in. It’s ridiculous. The press show up and they can pass. Ministers and government officials come, and they get access. But to the people who have lives up there, they tell us we can’t pass.”

Sumbrilla vented her frustrations as a National Police officer kept her fenced out of the La Pastora shelter, where her friends and belongings are, on a chilly and drizzly afternoon while Agriculture Minister Javier Flores toured the facility with the press corp. In response, Flores told The Tico Times that his ministry will “work with the National Police to make sure people can get what they need.”

After showing signs of activity since May 2007, Turrialba erupted with ash and gas Tuesday in a display not seen since 1866. Scientists say a lava flow is not likely to happen.


Still Spewing

Widespread ash eruptions have calmed at the Turrialba volcano but the mountain, about 40 kilometers northeast of San José, has continued to growl since it started spewing Jan. 4.

On Saturday, Jan. 9, a 70-meter-long gap near the crater of the beast that has been emitting gas and ash stretched to 100 m in length and crawled toward the crown of the volcano. This is worrisome, in part, because the further the crack extends, the more likely rock landslides from the top of the volcano wall will be, said volcanologist Raúl Mora from the National Seismological Network (RSN).

The opening has continued to release vapor and gases – such as sulfur, carbon dioxide and hydrochloric acid – into the air. A report released by the Vulcanological and Seismological Observatory of Costa Rica (OVSICORI) on Wednesday tracked sulfur from the Turrialba volcano up to 900 km away, drifting through the sky above the Pacific Ocean. The gases are traveling southwest, toward Jacó from Turrialba, and out to sea.

Teams from the RSN visited Turrialba on Thursday to measure the precise amount of sulfur in the air near the volcano and determine if it will endanger human and animal health. They also gauged, once more, the 100 m gap that has been spreading.

The Jan. 4 ash eruption came at a magnitude scientists had not recorded in 144 years.

The National Emergency Commission (CNE) maintained a yellow alert – Costa Rica’s second of three alert levels – for the canton of Turrialba, and a green alert for Alvarado, Jiménez, Oreamuno and downtown Cartago.

After about 40 evacuations last week, no new mandatory evacuations had been issued of late and scientists continued this week to reject the possibility of lava flows and eruptions.

The Agriculture Ministry reported that crops have not sustained significant damage from previous ash eruptions and the Costa Rican water and Sewer Institute (AyA) said water is safe to drink.

–Mike McDonald



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