May 2, 2009 marked the one-year anniversary of the eruption of Chaitén Volcano in Northern Patagonia, Chile. Like many people around the world, I first became aware of the eruption via this dramatic photo:
Recently, I spent four days in Chaitén doing research for my next novel. I can't begin to tell you what the initial eruption was like, but after speaking extensively with my guide, Nicolas La Penna, who was there when the volcano came to life for what many believe is the first time in 8,000 years, and through him as interpreter with several others, I have a small idea.
What I can speak to is the physical condition of the town. Officially, Chaitén remains evacuated and is without basic city services such as electricity and running water. Chaitén Volcano is still active, its status "Red Alert," another pyroclastic flow or lahar a very real possibility. Chaitén is a town at risk, and understandably, the government can't assume that risk by endorsing the town's habitation.
And so one year after the eruption, houses that were undamaged remain empty, neighborhoods hit hardest by the lahar still suffocate under several feet of mud and ash. Ruined buildings -- houses, churches, schools -- tilt at impossible angles. Great swaths of land where homes and buildings were swept out to sea are gray and barren. Horses -- left behind when their owners relocated -- wander the streets nibbling the grassy medians. The optimistic signs residents posted on their homes and buildings proclaiming "Chaitén will never die" are tattered and faded.
Yet despite the obvious danger and the lack of creature comforts, as many as 50 or 60 of Chaitén's residents have opted to stay. They generate their own electricity, get water from clean streams, buy gasoline to run their generators from towns 100 miles away. Several stores are open, stocked with goods brought in by ferry -- staples and fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as luxury items: potato chips, candy and wine. Prices are reasonable, often less than for similar goods in other towns nearby, which tells a lot about the stores' owners. These people are as tough as their forefathers who settled this remote area of Northern Patagonia, and their roots go deep. Each has their reasons for remaining.
"Every house has a story," Nicolas told me more than once as we explored the near-empty town -- stories these photographs of Chaitén's residents' own words help to tell.
"Welcome to 'Ground Zero.' Zero electricity, zero water, zero help from the government."
"We want the river defense, not castles in the sand."
"The government has forgotten us."
"We want to return to Chaiten."
Karen Dionne is the author of Freezing Point (October 2008, Berkley), a thriller Douglas Preston called "a ripper of a story," with rave endorsements from David Morrell, John Lescroart, and many others. Berkley will publish her next novel, Boiling Point, about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming in January 2011. For more information about her, go to www.karendionne.net.