|DATE, Japan, April 1 — Police and military units swarmed early Saturday around the site of Japan’s Mount Usu volcano, which erupted Friday in a cauldrom of gas and ash and hot rocks. Thanks to warnings from seismologists, no casualties had been reported by Saturday morning, though officials did fear the melting snowcap could cause dangerous floods or mudslides.|
EXPERTS MONITORING seismic activity of the volcano had predicted
the eruption and had already evacuated more than 11,000 nearby
“Depending on developments, the eruption could cause even bigger damage,” Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said. “The government will do whatever it can to deal with the situation.”
Sailors on the naval vessels reported mudslides slipping down the cone-shaped mountain towards Abuta, but navy officials said later these were small.
Officials said there were no reports of casualties.
NBC’s Arata Yamamoto in Tokyo reported that officials in Date had added about 550 more people to their evacuation orders, meaning that about 11,500 in all from Abuta village were told to evacuate their homes.
Roughly 51,000 people live in this town and two others near the 2,416-foot mountain, 475 miles north of Tokyo on the island of Hokkaido.
PLENTY OF WARNING
The plume and ash rose from the western slope of the volcano amid generally clear skies. Many townspeople rushed into the streets to watch the eruption, which was clearly visible.
The eruption began early Friday
afternoon with a rapidly expanding plume of white smoke rising from
the volcano’s crater. The plume quickly turned darker as more ash
and small debris became mixed in. It came just hours after roads began
cracking from growing fissures on the flanks of the snowcapped
mountain, early signs of the magma swelling below the earth.
Experts had warned residents that a major eruption could come at any time, though the magnitude of this eruption wasn’t immediately clear.
The meteorological agency issued an emergency warning earlier Friday to announce that cracks on the mountain were increasing in number and growing in length.
Japan is one of the world’s most eruption-prone countries,
with 86 active volcanoes, according to the meteorological agency. The
agency describes an active volcano as one that has erupted at least
once over the last 2,000 years.
Yamamoto said experts feared the eruption would worsen before the crisis was over. He said officials warned residents to beware of mudslides amid predictions of heavy rain later on Friday night because snow on the mountain could melt rapidly. Two people were killed and 200 homes destroyed in mudslides following Usu’s last eruptions, which began in 1977 and continued for several months into the following year.
Officials also were concerned that a flow of debris into a lake on the western side of the mountain could create a wave similar to tsunamis, which are created in the oceans by major earthquakes.
Some 3,300 troops were providing food, water and blankets for
Friday’s eruption was preceded by four days of intense seismic activity.
Officials at the Central Meteorological Agency in Tokyo said the focus of the quakes had been increasingly shallow. Though many of the tremors Thursday were centered at about 6 miles underground, those before the eruption were focused just under the surface.
The appearance of fissures on and around the mountain was also seen as particularly ominous. The location of the cracks, found earlier Friday, indicated the eruption would come from somewhere other than the volcano’s current crater.
That did not appear to be the case, however, though much of the volcano was obscured by the airborne ash. Initial reports from military helicopters said the eruption occurred near the crater rim.
Japan has not had a fatal eruption in Japan since 1991.
An eruption of the 4,459-foot Mount Unzen then sent avalanches of hot rocks sweeping through the outskirts of the town of Shimabara, in southern Japan, killing 43 people and leaving nearly 2,300 homeless.
NBC’s Arata Yamamoto in Tokyo, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.