Concerns about Mexico’s Popocatepetl volcano change with the wind

AMECAMECA, Mexico — Concern over the Popocatepetl volcano changes with the wind. While residents east of the mountain swept the streets and didn’t remove their masks on Tuesday, here to the west, they casually watched a plume of gas and ash erupt from its crater.

Just 45 miles (about 70 kilometers) southeast of Mexico City, the 17,797-foot (5,425-meter) mountain, affectionately known as “El Popo,” has been belching for days, dusting Puebla’s towns and crops in superfine ash.

“When nothing happens, we worry,” says a cheerful Viridiana Alba, who has been selling flowers in Amekameka’s central square for 25 years. “El Popo,” as the volcano is affectionately known, rises directly in front of his stop.

“We know right now it’s emitting smoke that’s releasing the energy it’s storing,” he said. Ash still rests on the canopy that shades his plants when the wind blew his way last weekend. The town has been rocked by the volcano’s tremors, but as long as the ash remains exposed, he believes it will help his plants.

Winds blew a large plume of ash eastward over the states of Puebla and Veracruz and eventually across the Gulf of Campeche and beyond.

Mexico’s National Disaster Prevention Center said in a report Tuesday that small lava domes continued to form inside the crater, which were then destroyed by small to moderate explosions. It advised that people living in communities near the volcano would likely continue to experience these eruptions in the coming days and weeks.

Three days ago, “my house shook almost all night, it was amazing,” said Arturo Benitez, a former local official. “The sound of the volcano was strong, it resembled a burning cauldron, and a lot of ash fell, but then suddenly it sat on this side.”

It was Sunday when authorities raised the alert level, while maintaining that there was no immediate danger to the public.

No evacuation orders were issued, but authorities conducted evacuation routes, prepared some shelters and conducted simulation exercises.

In Amekameka, police distributed pamphlets with tips on how to prepare in case of increased volcanic activity. The pamphlet recommended having important documents on hand, a full gas tank, masks and towels to hydrate in case residents had to evacuate.

Most residents already know, especially those who remember the 1997 eruption, which “darkened the sky, thundered … and rained mud,” Benitez said.

“The pyroclastic cloud came to Amekameka and it was chaos, then everyone wanted to leave and it was huge,” he said.

The only time Popocatepetl triggered a red alert on the government traffic light system since emerging from decades of slumber in 1994 was in 2000. The last major eruption of the volcano was more than 1000 years ago.

This time, the activity has so far not been significant for locals, but localized effects can be real for residents on one side of the volcano while everything is normal on the other side.

Benitez, who years ago worked as a photographer with federal authorities monitoring the volcano, said he thinks the coverage in recent days has been a bit exaggerated. “It’s not so bad if they know something we don’t because the activity is down.”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador also downplayed the situation on Tuesday.

“We will monitor and let you know if anything happens,” he said. “But we feel there won’t be a problem.”

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