Camelia Pasandaran & Candra Malik
With Central Java’s Mount Merapi experiencing its worst eruptions in more than a century, the Indonesian president and his three top ministers on Friday arrived in Yogyakarta to reassure residents and ensure a quicker response to the unfolding disaster.
The volcano, which has been continually erupting since Oct. 26, sent deadly heat clouds down its slopes on Thursday night and Friday morning, killing 64 people and destroying villages previously thought to be safe.
The deaths brought the toll to 122, with more than 150,000 people displaced, presidential staffer Andi Arief said.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono arrived in Yogyakarta on Friday night and had set up his command post at Gedung Agung, the presidential residence there. The city of 400,000 people is 30 kilometers south of the volcano.
Yogyakarta Mayor Herry Zudianto late on Thursday declared that the city was at the highest alert level.
The authorities also widened the radius of the danger zone around the mountain for the second time in a week, from 15 km to the present 20 km.
It was at 10 km immediately after the eruption cycle began.
Lahar, or cold lava washed down by heavy rains, on Friday afternoon begun to flow through the Code River that runs down the southern slope of Merapi and through the heart of Yogyakarta, causing panic among those living on its banks.
“Since Friday at dawn, residents in seven subdistricts have been told to be ready to be evacuated at any time,” Zudianto said.
Yogyakarta’s international airport was closed as ash clouds billowed from the 2,914-meter peak to the altitude of cruising jetliners and the runway was covered in grey soot. Officials said the airport remain shut until at least Saturday.
Forty-one flights between Jakarta and Yogyakarta were canceled on Friday.
Yudhoyono, who was accompanied by State Secretary Sudi Silalahi and all three coordinating ministers, did not say how long he planned to stay in Yogyakarta.
“I have to be with the people there to assure them, as well as for quick decision-making,” he said. “In a crisis situation like this, I don’t want decision-making to take long.”
Journalists who cover the palace have been told to prepare to stay in Yogyakarta until Sunday at the earliest, but the president was scheduled to be back in Jakarta to greet visiting US President Barack Obama on Tuesday.
The president also said that coordination of disaster mitigation for the eruption had been tasked to Syamsul Maarif, the head of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB).
“Looking at the scale and the continuity of the disaster, I decided that the command is now in the hand of the BNPB head with the help of the Yogyakarta and Central Java governors, the Diponegoro military commander and the heads of the police of Central Java and Yogyakarta,” he said, adding that the decision was effective as of Friday.
Yudhoyono said he had also assigned Agung Laksono, coordinating minister for people’s welfare, to coordinate aid from the central government.
Meanwhile, the military is preparing a brigade to build makeshift hospitals and public kitchens to serve the growing number of displaced.
“The Indonesian Armed Forces [TNI] will also mobilize vehicles for [evacuations],” Yudhoyono said.
He added that the National Police were also preparing a task force to assure a smooth flow of traffic as people moved to safety.
Sukhyar, head of the geological agency, said officers at observation stations had been withdrawn for safety reasons.
The Transportation Ministry has ordered pilots to stay at least 12 km away from the rumbling volcano, and several flights linking Central Java to Singapore and Malaysia have been canceled this week.
Additional reporting from AFP