Sickness in the ash of simmering Vanuatu volcano

News and Press Release
Originally published
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai'i

By Ray Lilley

AMBAE ISLAND, Vanuatu (The Associated Press, Dec. 12) - Mothers at an evacuation center seeking shelter from an erupting volcano on this South Pacific island said Saturday the heat and fumes from the mountain had made their children sick and there was no medicine to treat them.

Mount Manaro has been pumping steam, ash and sulfur gases into the air since Nov. 27 after waking from a 10-year slumber, sending more than half of the island's 10,000 population to five evacuation centers on the island.

More than 700 people were crammed into the sprawling Torgil camp, many sleeping on woven mats on concrete floors.

"This place is not good," Rebecca Woi said as she cradled a coughing 2-year-old and sweat streamed down her face. "The kids are sick, they have fever and coughs because it's so hot down here at the bottom of the mountain.

"We're not getting the aid we need with coughs and fevers and the medicines are not free. Many families can't afford to pay for them."

Local medical authorities were not immediately available for comment.

In a tribal gesture of appeasement, chiefs from a village close to the top of the erupting volcano tramped to the 4,920-foot-high crater rim to offer a peace offering to the volcano's god, Tagaro.

The chiefs from Ambanga village planned to toss a large boar's tusk into one of the crater's lakes and offer apologies to Tagaro, who they believe may have been angered by the actions of humans on the island.

"We believe he will help the people and the scientists by cooling the fire," said Paul Vuhu, a high school teacher from the village. While Vanuatu, a popular South Pacific vacation destination, has embraced many Western ideas, traditional tribal beliefs remain strong on far-flung islands like Ambae, which is rarely visited by tourists.

Earlier Saturday, the first shipload of aid for evacuees arrived at this remote island in northern Vanuatu, said to be the inspiration for the idyllic Bali Hai in James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific."

The shipment, funded by former islanders now living and working in the Vanuatu capital, Port Vila, included sacks of rice, tinned fish, sugar, noodles and fuel for vehicles, generators and lamps.

A small dinghy buzzed back and forth across Ambae's palm-fringed Lolowai Harbor ferrying the supplies from the freighter M.V. Ula to the beach where a human chain of 20 men passed the sacks and cartons to pickup trucks.

A large water tank, sent by the Vanuatu Red Cross, also landed on the beach on the island in northern Vanuatu, a volcano-studded archipelago of 80 islands 1,400 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia.

The vulcanologist Morris Harrison said several small earthquakes shook Ambae on Saturday.

Tremors from the volcano became stronger after the quakes, and while the mountain "seems to be stationary," scientists believe it has developed a second vent one pouring steam up to 10,000 feet into the air, the other dumping ash into Lake Vui in the crater.

The Vanuatu government has two ships standing ready to evacuate the island if the volcano's activity increases, though vulcanologists have said the chance of that happening appears low.