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Posted 10/20/2003 7:38 PM     Updated 10/21/2003 9:29 AM
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. Just a slice of verdant slope.

"There are great benefits to living under Vesuvius," jokes Tarallo, 32, whose family home lies in the zona rossa (red zone), the area at highest risk from the volcano. "You smoke as much as you want, drink as much as you want. Why not?" (Related graphic: Vesuvius' danger mounts)

Concerned that too many people now crowd the sides of the active volcano, authorities here have launched a bold plan to prevent a repeat of the catastrophic explosion that wiped out Pompeii and smothered thousands of its residents nearly 2,000 years ago.

Authorities hope to thin the ranks of residents so they can be evacuated when Mount Vesuvius erupts again. They are doing this by offering cash incentives to move, demolishing the illegal buildings that have sprouted on its flanks and establishing a national park at its top.

It's only a matter of time before it does erupt, scientists say.

"It won't be tomorrow, it won't be next month, and maybe it won't be next year. But it is overdue," says Giovanni Macedonio, director of Vesuvius Observatory, the institute responsible for monitors apparently were evident in 79 A.D. when, in the most famous volcanic eruption in history, Vesuvius exploded and sealed Pompeii in a 10-foot blanket of ash and Herculaneum in a landslide of mud.

At least 3,500 are estimated to have died. The ruins of the two towns, which archaeologists only began excavating in the 1800s, have produced a bonanza of information on Roman civilization as well as poignant images of mothers, babies and couples at the moment of death. (The event was the first volcanic eruption to be described in detail, by scholar Pliny the Younger, whose uncle perished in it, according to experts.)

But if the precursors can signal an eruption, they don't guarantee one. In fact, there's a 50% chance an eruption won't occur. And therein lies the hitch: What if everyone is evacuated and Vesuvius doesn't erupt?

In 1984, Italian officials evacuated 40,000 people in the Campi Flegrei area near Naples when a xcasinobonuses volcano there threatened to erupt. It never did.

"Imagine evacuating 580,000 people and nothing happens," Macedonio says. "Get it wrong, and it's the end of a career."

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