In the Shadow of a Volcano
You can learn a lot about people when you understand how they react to disaster. We all like to think we’d be completely in control in the face of chaos, but the fact is, you just don’t know until you’re there.
Most people in this world have had their share of disaster. Maybe you lost a job. Maybe your house was robbed. Maybe you suffered an illness. All of these things test a person’s ability to react and to bounce back, but they don’t completely take the legs out from under you, leaving you to start anew.
Natural disaster truly knocks you down. If you’re not prepared, it can wipe out everything you own in one fell swoop. It can destroy your world without warning, in the blink of an eye.
Even with an evacuation system in place, communities are devastated when natural disaster strikes.
The people of Indonesia are no strangers to natural disaster. According to the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program, “more than 75% of Indonesian residents live within 100 km of a Holocene volcano, the highest number of people of any of the world’s volcanic regions.”
Just a quick glance at the map will tell you that it’s a highly risky – but impossibly beautiful – place to live.
Also according to Smithsonian, Indonesia has the largest number of historically active volcanoes (78). And tragically, the combination of a densely packed population in a volcano-heavy region means that Indonesia has suffered the highest number of eruptions producing fatalities and damage to human infrastructure.
During the UNPAR International Student Conference in Indonesia last year, I learned about the effects of volcanoes firsthand – from members of a community who live directly below Mt. Merapi. Mt. Merapi is one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes, and it lies in one of the world’s most densely populated areas. It’s a very active threat – the most recent eruption was in April of 2014.
We visited Kaliurang Bus Station – just 20 kilometers from Merapi – and interviewed shopkeepers to find out how living in the shadow of a deadly mountain changes their lifestyle and their outlook.
Caroline spoke to our first interviewee in Indonesian and translated to our group. Remarkably, the woman was incredibly calm when explaining the dangers of living beneath an active volcano. She almost seemed to have been desensitized – Merapi was just another variable in the game of life.
She explained to us how the evacuation system works – or doesn’t work – in her village. She told us about the alarm that sounds when an eruption is expected. Apparently, it’s a faulty system that has had more than it’s fair share of false alarms. When the system was first installed, she said people were quick to leave when the alarm went off. But as time went on, they learned that evacuating was an inconvenience that too often turned out to be unnecessary.
Because the area is somewhat insulated by surrounding mountains, the smaller eruptions don’t have devastating effects – but the volcanic ash is certainly a danger. Of course, the landscape is a constant reminder that it’s only a matter of time until the next major eruption.
Herley interviewed our next subject, who told us about a friend of his who was away at college when a dose of ash came through the town. The student’s family was unable to save all of his possessions, so he had a rude awakening when he returned home.
Luckily, the people of Kaliurang are supportive of one another – they told us that they are quick to help people rebuild after volcanic damage. This sort of camaraderie seems essential in order to keep a community resilient after years of assaults from the elements.
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to wonder how people can calmly go about their lives when disaster is on their back porch.
For many, moving simply isn’t an option. Some are prohibited by cost, others by livelihood. No matter the reason, the people of Kaliurang have decided to stay put. They’ve weighed the risks, analyzed the evidence, and made their decision. So who are we to judge?
All we can do is hope for the best.
Because being in Kaliurang doesn’t feel at all like a death sentence. It’s just a resilient community in a particularly fragile part of this very fragile planet.
If you think about it, no matter how safe we think we are, every community around the world is truly at the mercy of nature. If not a volcano, then an earthquake, a landslide, a tsunami, a hurricane, a tornado, you name it.
We can’t conquer nature, so we have to learn to live with it.
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