JAKARTA, Indonesia — The death toll from Indonesia’s Mt. Merapi doubled Friday when rescue workers uncovered more than 50 victims who had succumbed to the latest blast of superheated gas from a fierce eruption that began late Thursday night. The eruption burned villages up to nine miles away from the volcano’s crater and forced authorities to widen the evacuation zone.
The volatile volcano has killed more than 100 people and left nearly 90,000 in need of shelter since it first began erupting 10 days ago.
Shelters closer than 12 miles to the summit have been relocated and many evacuees were forced to move for a second time in two days. On Friday afternoon, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared the eruption a national disaster and tasked the country’s disaster management agency with overseeing relief operations.
Increasingly powerful eruptions have hampered relief efforts and caused panic among evacuees shaken by the intensity of the previous three days’ blasts. Officials widened the evacuation zone Thursday. The latest eruption sounded as people were loading into the trucks that would take them further down the volcano.
Many people panicked and were separated from their families in the chaos, says Haris Eko Yulianto, the head of the Indonesian Red Cross in Jogjakarta. He is working with the authorities to secure enough water, masks and eye drops to last evacuees for one week. The Red Cross is also distributing other aid, such as blankets and mattresses and providing health consultations.
Yulianto said the biggest worry is that people will become sick from breathing the thick dust and sand in the air.
Thursday’s blast has continued nonstop, and the stream of ash spewing from the volcano has darkened the sky over nearby Jogjakarta. Ash falls like snow, and the Gendol River flanking the volcano runs grey from the debris. All flights to the city have been cancelled.
Merapi has erupted four times in the past decade, but the last time the volcano took such a toll was in 1930, when 1,300 people were killed. Until Thursday, most of the fatalities were from the initial blast on Oct. 26. Some rescue officials have criticized the government for not issuing an evacuation warning earlier. They say the government should have used more force to ensure that people near the top of the volcano moved to safety.
Most of the people who rely on Merapi’s fertile slopes are traditional farmers with a deep spiritual connection to the volcano. Despite the eruptions, many returned to their homes when the volcano was quiet to check on their crops and livestock. But the intensified blasts have stirred fear among many villagers. Those who hoped they would be able to leave the camps after just a few days are now uncertain about what the future holds.
The head of Indonesia’s Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Agency, Surono, said the pressure inside the volcano’s chamber is much deeper than in earlier eruptions. As pressure builds deeper it produces more forceful eruptions that release greater volumes of ash and debris.
“If the deep volcanic earthquakes increase, in number and in energy, I’m scared Merapi will erupt with a big intensity,” Surono said.
To ease people’s fears, President Yudhoyono said the government would compensate villagers for the cattle left on the volcano. Police were also being brought in to secure empty homes and keep people out of the danger zone.
Other volcanoes around Indonesia have shown increasing activity in recent weeks, though scientists remain uncertain as to whether there is a direct connection.