Monday, May 5, 2008

The Evacuation of Chaitén and Futaleufú

Since my previous entry, I've had word from residents in Chaitén and Futaleufú about conditions in the aftermath of last Friday's eruption, which continues. According to Nicholas La Penna, of the Chaitur travel agency in Chaitén, it was fortunate that the ferry Alejandrina, which links Chaitén to the mainland city of Puerto Montt, was in port at the time, so the town's evacuation went smoothly; they had help from the Puerto Edén, which was diverted from its more southerly Patagonian route, and naval vessels. About 4,000 evacuees went either to Puerto Montt or to Quellón, on the island of Chiloé.

From the boat, according to Nicholas, the view was stunning: "As we left Chaiten late in the afternoon, the scale of the event became clearer, the town in a shower of ash, hazy, the whole northern section, smokey and the gigantic column of volcanic ash growing, then another eruption of fresh material, darker and denser. Later from the ship, when night fell, we saw the volcano become a lightning light show. I counted at one point an average of 45 seconds between flashes of lights, most of them white, a few were red/orange." Contrast that with the clear skies in the photograph above, taken just outside Chaitén last summer.

Futaleufú, being more isolated (three hours by road from Chaitén but barely an hour from the Argentine city of Esquel), has had a more difficult evacuation, but buses are due to take several hundred residents to Puerto Montt via Argentina. Meanwhile, according to Vicki Lansen, who lives there, "we had three days of darkness, almost four inches of ash, and water contamination ... being cut off from the rest of Chile, lack of supplemental animal feed is devastating ... This morning a drizzle of rain and the sky is clearing of floating ash. We are out helping neighbors clear awnings, roofs and sidewalks. Everyone left in Futa is pitching in and getting things cleared up."

Meanwhile, across the border in Argentina, flights into the airport at Esquel have been halted until the skies clear, and authorities are recommending that residents leave their homes only when necessary. School has been suspended there and in nearby Trevelin and other communities.

If there's a silver lining in this cloud of ash, it's that the eruption is taking place at the beginning of winter, and that the frequent rains should wash much of the ash away. Livestock will suffer, but the tourist industry, on which Chaitén and Futaleufú increasingly depend, will have several months to recover - the season does not really start until October and doesn't get into full swing until December or even January. How long the evacuation will last is open to question, though - when Volcán Hudson blew in August 1991, it continued into October - but with luck rafters and kayakers will be descending the mighty "Fu" later this year.

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