1 December 2017

People and Pyroclastics: Mount Agung at the Confluence of Science and Society

Posted by Callan Bentley

A guest post by Kenny Peavy: http://theearthmatters.asia/

[Note: Kenny has been a dear friend of mine for many years. He’s an American expatriate living in Indonesia. I’m glad that I can bring you his first-hand report on the situation for people living in east Bali as the volcano Mount Agung erupts. Note that the title of the blog post has been updated to avoid conveying the mistaken impression that Agung is a caldera. (Because it’s not.) We regret the misleading word in the original title. -CB]

We got the notice about 9pm. Luckily, we were prepared.

A few days before the status of Mount Agung in East Bali went from Level I (normal) to II (alert).  Then quickly elevated again and went to Level III (standby). We weren’t too worried. We had bags packed. Important stuff. Emergency route was planned and we would evacuate to go stay with friends.

We’d moved to Bali four years ago after I left a science teaching position in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We chose rural Bali far from the tourist areas because I wanted my 5-year old daughter to grow up outdoors roaming around unfettered free to explore and play outside. I had also recently started an Education Outside The Classroom Expedition business to do the same with students and Bali was the perfect place to connect kids with local communities and the natural world.

We were definitely in the right spot for being immersed in Balinese culture and exploring nature but that also meant we were close to Mount Agung!

Mount Agung before the current eruption. Photo by Kenny Peavy.

When neighbors started leaving we were calm and planning to stay until it went to Level IV (caution). It was dark, and we headed off away from the volcano.

There was plenty of misinformation on social media. People claiming it was raining fire and stones. It wasn’t. Videos of other volcanoes erupting with captions that it was Agung. It wasn’t. People panicking and envisioning fire and brimstone and imagining themselves running just ahead of a pyroclastic flow of red-hot lava. They wouldn’t.

That was my biggest concern. Panic. Mayhem and misinformed people. Chaos.

At 9pm on September 22nd we got notice. Agung was elevated to Level IV (caution)- the highest level. A quick check on the government websites confirmed. It was time to leave.

So with my wife and daughter we loaded our motorbike with four medium sized bags and took off into the night.

The roads were crowded. Thousands of motorbikes. Hundreds of bemos. Dozens of large trucks all on the two-lane road heading out of town.

There was a steady stream of traffic from Karangasem in East Bali towards the south into the safe zones. But overall it was smooth. The traffic was moving. A few people were panicking but by and large it was going well.

We have a motorbike. We have friends. We have options. Not everyone does.

Along the way we saw folks waiting on the side of the road hoping to hop in a truck or possibly waiting for someone to come and pick them up.

The waiting and imagining. Not knowing. That’s the worst part.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be waiting on the side of the road during an evacuation and hoping you will get a ride or your ride will arrive in time.

Excruciating. Nerve wracking.

A few trucks were headed the other way. Presumably to evacuate folks from the 12km radius of the No Go Zone.

Two hours later we’d completed a ride that normally takes thirty minutes and arrived at a friends house in the safe zone.

The next day stories of farmers getting cheated by folks that bought their cows for next to nothing were already circulating. The poorest farmers on the slope of Agung would be hit the hardest. They would potentially lose their livestock and their land.

They were the ones living in the No Go Zone and being evacuated on big trucks with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

Some folks were taking advantage of this and buying the cattle at next to nothing rates from panicked farmers that saw no other choice.

Sad. Infuriating. Reality.

Thankfully not everyone was like that and we witnessed plenty of good people helping other people in a time of need.

From what I could see who you are, where you are from, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, white or brown didn’t matter any more. It all dropped away.

During a time of crisis those things don’t truly matter. People were helping each other however they could. We were sharing updates and information. Folks were carrying and loading stuff for each other.

The superficial differences disappeared. People helping people.

School girls that helping with a census of the evacuation camp and some administrative paperwork. Photo by Kenny Peavy.

When will we learn that those differences never truly matter?

Now we are refugees.  Technically speaking, of course.

Since we evacuated on September 22nd we’ve relocated and moved to a new house down near the airport about 45km from the volcano.  Although we can’t predict the ash fall we’re as safe as we can be. Evacuating in the middle of the night was pretty stressful and something we don’t want to do again so a permanent move was the right choice.

We love East Bali. Karangasem is a quiet, peaceful place dotted with rice fields, black sand beaches and spectacular views of Mt. Agung. Amlapura, where we lived, is a very local small town with just enough energy and busyness to keep you happy but not too much that’ll stress you out.

We lived there for almost four years and had become part of the community. My daughter was attending a local school. We had friends and neighbors we connected with.

Idyllic really.

Mount Agung erupting earlier this week. Photo by Delphine Ménard, via Michael W. Ishak, via Wikimedia Commons [source page]

Agung forced us to move and start anew. So we move forward and try to get on with a normal daily life. For us it’s been a disruption and a big inconvenience but we’re the lucky ones. We have friends willing to help. We have an education. We have access to accurate information.

It’s very easy for us to forget that not everyone is so lucky and with access to those resources.

Imagine you’re a farmer and your whole village was loaded on a truck and then plunked at a relief camp far from your home. Your collective memory is of the 1963 eruption that killed 1000+ people.

Chances are you don’t quite understand what’s going on and you especially don’t understand the geology of it all. Much less the risks, hazards and long term effects. Even though the information is out there you don’t really know where to look or how to find it.

You are worried about your cows, pigs and chickens that are left on the mountain.

Who will feed them?

You’re worried about your village and home. Your whole life is there.

All you know is that the government showed up in big trucks and buses and told you that you have to leave right away. That’s where we are now. So we try to carry on with our daily lives even though our natural rhythm has been disrupted.

It’s been stressful, exciting, interesting, taxing, exhausting with emotional ups and downs but I try to see the learning and wisdom that can come from this experience.

We can understand the science of it. But what’s interesting for me is where that intersects with culture, religion and society.

We’ve been sending volunteers to the area to educate evacuees about the dangers of ash fall.  We’ve been providing masks and goggles and posters about their proper use. But it doesn’t always seem to sink in and it can be quite puzzling when you consider human behavior.

Playing fun and educational games with kids in the evacuation camp. Photo by Kenny Peavy.

Some folks have masks and goggles but they aren’t wearing them. Some of our friends want to leave with their children but other family members refuse. Some folks take a more spiritual route and say the Great Mountain will protect and provide. It doesn’t always make sense to me.

These are all interesting perspectives.  As a Westerner trained in science, I value the data, the facts and the geological perspective. But that’s not the case for everyone and even though I don’t always understand the different points of view I must respect them.

So we do what we can and help where we can while realizing the confluence of science and society is turbid and murky. It doesn’t always make logical sense. The whirls and eddies of human behavior aren’t always explained by logic and reason.

For me, understanding this intersection is a worthwhile endeavor and a path that will take a lifetime of exploring and learning to even begin to understand.

Want to help out and donate to a good cause? Here’s a link to pitch in: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/help-evacuees-in-bali

Face masks to be distributed to evacuees. Photo by Kenny Peavy.

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