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For Residents of Chaitén, Chile, Life -- And the Eruption -- Go On

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Chaitén volcano in Northern Patagonia, Chile came to life on May 2, 2008 for the first time in 9,000 years in a major eruption. Since that time, the eruption has never stopped. The town of Chaitén at the base of the volcano was evacuated at the start of the eruption with no loss of life, but heavy winter rains ten days later flooded the area with mud and ash and destroyed 90% of the town.

Like the victims of other natural disasters -- New Orleans, Japan, Thailand, Alabama -- the choices for the residents of Chaitén town were few: take the government's resettlement money and relocate permanently elsewhere, start building "New Chaiten" from the ground up once the government decided on a safe location for the new town, or remain in their ruined town despite the danger -- which is exactly what a handful of holdouts have done now for the past three years, carrying on as best they can while doing without basic city services such as electricity and running water.

I write environmental thrillers for Berkley/Penguin Putnam, and traveled to Chaitén one year after the volcano erupted to research the setting for my second novel. I stayed four days in the ruined town, and hiked to within one mile of the new lava dome, where I saw steam vents, heard explosions coming from the caldera, and felt several earthquakes.

In the two years since my visit, not much has changed. Flowers bloom in abandoned gardens. Horses left behind when their owners relocated wander the streets, eating the grassy medians.

Following the election of a new government last year, however, political pressure from holdout residents in Chaitén persuaded officials to re-establish electric power and water to the north part of town -- a big step up for residents after more than two years of doing without.

Interior Minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma explains that while the government will respect the wishes of those who decide to stay in the area, no public funds will be allocated "to a city that we feel should not be located where it is."

Dr. Thomas Pierson, a Research Hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, Cascades Volcano Observatory, recently spent 3 weeks in Chaitén studying the volcano. "The hazard from possible future flooding or from a possible pyroclastic flow reaching the town still exists," he says. "My impression is that the hazards of remaining in that town are not clearly understood by all residents."

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Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of Freezing Point, a science thriller nominated by RT Book Reviews as Best First Mystery of 2008. A second environmental thriller, Boiling Point, about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming was published from Berkley in January 2011.