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Residents evacuate repeatedly as they await volcanic eruption

Some 800 people in southern Iceland have repeatedly been forced to evacuate their homes in areas located near a volcano releasing dense clouds of black, toxic ash and at risk of glacial flooding. But so far little damage has been reported.


AFP - Some 800 people have repeatedly been forced to flee their homes near an ash-spewing volcano in southern Iceland, but despite the imminent threat of flash floods and toxic ash, there are few signs of alarm.

"I really wouldn't even know there was an eruption going on if not for all the news coverage," Gudny Halla Gunnlaugsdottir, a farmer who lives just 15 kilometres (nine miles) southwest of the Eyjafjallajokull glacier that sits atop Iceland's second erupting volcano in less than a month.

Gunnlaugsdottir, whose family has been evacuated from their farm, Buland, four times since the first volcano eruption began on March 21, takes it all in stride.

"There hasn't been any damage to our belongings," she told AFP.

Kjartan Thorkelsson, the local police chief in the nearby village of Hvolsvollur, said there the two evacuations since the latest eruption began early Wednesday had gone well.

"There is no panic," he told AFP.

The road here was deliberately cut on Wednesday when the second volcano blast began to relieve pressure from the ash- and ice-filled glacial flood waters cascading down the glacier and to save a major bridge from being swept away.

Next to the swollen Markarfljot river, black with ash and littered with thousands of boulder-sized chunks of ice, a sole police car straddles the road to block traffic.

Thorkelsson and other local police have helped evacuate residents twice already since early Wednesday, but says that thanks to regular practice, the maneuvre feels almost routine.

"People know what to do, and they know we will tell them what is happening," he said, pointing out that police generally give a two-hour warning by phone or text message to all residents before an evacuation.

"We tell them to have the necessary things (packed and) ready," he said, adding that evacuations generally don't last more than a day.

Joan Ellis, 62, and her daughter Jess, both teachers, are among the many tourists stranded in Iceland after air space across much of Europe was shut down Thursday.

"We don't know where we will stay. We had just one night booked and that was in one of the villages that was evacuated," Joan said, adding that she was quite happy to be stuck in such magnificent scenary.

"I don't know when we'll be able to leave. Gosh! I hope we have to stay longer," she said, standing near the overflowing river.

"We kind of like traveling by the seat of our pants and we found ourselves in an international event," she said.

Last month, the first eruption at the Eyjafjallajokull glacier forced 600 people from their homes in the same area.

That eruption, in the Fimmvorduhals volcano next to the glacier, was the first in the area since 1823 and Iceland's first since 2004, gushed lava for more than three weeks and ended Tuesday, hours before the second one occurred.

Experts have cautioned that eruptions near Eyjafjallajokull tend to set off the larger Katla volcano, which is considered one of the most dangerous volcanos in Iceland, and which last erupted in 1918.

So far there is no sign of activity at Katla, but geologists point out that an eruption there often follows a year or two after the smaller blasts at Eyjafjallajokull.

If Katla were to blow, farmer Gunnlaugsdottir said she might lose some of her cool.

"I don't think it's a matter of whether it will erupt, but a matter of when," she said.

"And then we will have a real problem on our hands."


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