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Under the Volcano

Though scientists fear a major eruption from Mexico's smoking Popocatepetl, life goes on as usual in surrounding villages. After all, asks one resident, 'Where am I to go?'

June 06, 1997|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN PEDRO BENITO JUAREZ, Mexico — Jaime Romero Aguirre is building a house at the base of one of the biggest, most potentially deadly volcanoes on the globe. His new home is a simple concrete affair, but a big step up from the rickety thatched hut nearby.

"A lot of people here are building new houses," Romero said as he and his crew stacked cinder blocks into mortar one recent afternoon in this endangered little village. "But it's not for protection against an eruption. It's just to improve our lives. It's an investment in the future."

Investing here, in the shadow of Popocatepetl? Pouring hard-earned pesos into new homes at a time when the 17,887-foot, snowcapped behemoth that the Aztecs dubbed "Smoking Mountain" has been showering this and dozens of other nearby villages with ash and fire for weeks?

It's the rough equivalent of building a mansion on the San Andreas fault.

And yet, Romero just shrugged and laughed.

"We trust Don Gregorio. He is inside the mountain. He knows everything, and he will warn us," Romero said of the saint that he and thousands of villagers believe lives in the core of the active volcano. "We have asked him, 'Should we go, or should we stay?' And he has said nothing. So, we stay. We live. We laugh. Life goes on as normal."

So much for fear and loathing just six miles from the crater of a volcano that scientists say could smother up to 350,000 people in this and many other small villages under mud, ash and pyroclastic flows, if and when "Popo" blows. Here, 600 families--indeed, thousands of others in this most-threatened region just a few hours' drive from the nation's capital--live with faith and laughter in the face of an abstract science (volcanology) that calculates their possible fates.

Meantime, most folks in San Pedro insist they are all but untouched by the ash plumes, fire showers and tremors that have marked the months since Popocatepetl rumbled back to life in 1994.

That year, Maria Elena Baustida heeded an official evacuation alert and fled the concrete house she shares with her three young daughters on a hillside within easy sight of Popo. She stayed with relatives for eight or nine days. But then she returned home--and plans to stay put.

"I'm not afraid here," she said. "Besides, where am I to go?"

Yes, she conceded, "I do think there will be a major eruption someday, but we'll be fine."

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Scientists tracking Popo's small eruptions and seismic activity say villages like San Pedro, southeast of the volcano's cone, are at greatest risk--a reality that state officials say they have spent months trying to impress upon the villagers.

But each day, San Pedro residents ignore the government's posted evacuation plans, its educational fliers and even its most recent "yellow alert."

Scores of peasants tend fields in which they sowed their annual corn crop in April; their harvest is not due until December.

The 357 children at Nicholas Bravo Primary School file in and out of classes, oblivious to the new yellow flag flying overhead and to the smoking crater that towers over them.

And officials like Angel Rojas Perez, the village chief, spend far more time resolving pothole problems in San Pedro's pitted, stone streets than they do talking on the disaster-alert cellular telephone that state officials recently installed in a tiny office here.

In contrast to the pastoral calm in places like San Pedro, the headquarters of the government's disaster-prevention and disaster-alert centers are bustling. State and federal officials say they are taking elaborate steps to monitor Popo, to prepare evacuation routes, and to warn and educate local villagers about what will happen if the mountain blows.

Officials in the state of Puebla, which includes San Pedro and the volcano, boast of having invested vast sums to widen roads, deploy new army posts, distribute fliers with evacuation route specifics, and install high-tech cellular communication systems in dozens of villages like San Pedro, which lack even basic telephone service.

At Mexico City's National Autonomous University of Mexico, scientists--who have access to the latest satellite pictures of Popo--have set up a volcano "war room" linked to radar scanners, television cameras and seismic sensors.

"There is also a scientific group of 20 people from the university and the National Center for Disaster Prevention that includes engineers, volcanologists, seismologists, geochemists and others," said Roberto Quaas, one of the center's chief engineers. "We are constantly monitoring the volcano and making decisions and recommendations to civil authorities on when they should evacuate."

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