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August 17, 2015

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Ecuador clears villages as risk from Cotopaxi volcano grows

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has declared a state of emergency as the dangerous Cotopaxi volcano rumbled to life and prompted evacuation orders in several villages threatened by landslides.

“As a precautionary measure, a total of 400 people have been evacuated,” the president said in his radio and television address just before signing the decrees on Saturday.

The volcano, which towers to 5,897 meters high, is considered one of the most threatening in the region, both because of its size and because it is so close to well-populated towns.

“The situation developing at Cotopaxi is a serious threat that has led the government to take urgent measures to confront this eruptive process,” said Public Safety chief Cesar Navas.

The volcano started to stir on Friday, registering several small eruptions and shooting plumes of dust and ash 8 kilometers into the sky.

By declaring a state of emergency — also called a state of exception in Ecuador — the president can direct resources and deploy military personnel to aid communities affected by the volcano’s activity. Earlier, officials ordered what they called precautionary evacuations in villages near the volcano, warning residents of potential landslides of volcanic debris, or lahars.

Residents in towns and river settlements in Cotopaxi province, just 45km south of the capital Quito, were told to clear out, said Pablo Morillo, head of the Risk Management Office.

Officials did not specify how many people could be affected by the evacuation order that affects three provinces with towns near the volcano.

In the city of Latacunga, home to about 170,000 people, sirens sounded as residents frantically fled, packing food, water and pets into cars that quickly clogged the roads.

“I was driving near the Cutuchi River and police came out with sirens, alerting us, and moving from house to house to draw people out,” said a woman, without providing her name.

Soldiers could be seen in the streets of Latacunga, along with cars carrying mattresses, motorcycles and other household items.

Authorities maintained a yellow alert in the region, a mid-range warning, and said it would remain as long as Cotopaxi continued to stir.

“We will maintain the same alert, but as there are no lahar flows, the evacuation order is only preventive,” Morillo said.

The volcano spewed a current of hot glass and rock — called pyroclastic flow.

“Due to the pyroclastic flows that can generate lahars, preventative evacuations (are ordered) on the southern part” of the volcano, the Risk Management Office said on Twitter.

The Geophysical Institute also cautioned residents: “At present, there have been no lahars, but they could occur.”

Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas said 1 million surgical masks will be distributed in the city of 2.3 million people, to prevent inhalation of falling dust.

Some residents could be seen wearing masks on Friday as they fled villages, with a large, angry cloud of gray dust and ash forming over Cotopaxi.


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