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Posted 10/20/2003 7:38 PM     Updated 10/21/2003 9:29 AM
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Italians trying to prevent a modern Pompeii
SAN SEBASTIANO AL VESUVIO, Italy Carlo Tarallo lives in the last house on one of the last streets of this aptly named village, with a view to die for. So close does he sleep to the most dangerous volcano in the world that when he looks out his bedroom window he can't see all of it. 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 monitoring the volcano. When it blows, Macedonio warns, it could be with the power of "tens of hundreds of atomic bombs."

Vesuvius last erupted in 1944. Lava destroyed some orchards and homes and 26 people were killed, although most of those died from heart attacks. Residents put pots on their heads to protect against rocks shooting through the air, but the rumblings soon stilled. Vesuvius has been quiet since. So quiet, in fact, that Pope John Paul II visited Pompeii Oct. 7 to pray for peace at a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

During the volcano's 60-year slumber, however, sprawl from nearby Naples has spilled out; nearly 600,000 people now live in the 18 towns in the shadow of the volcano. Combined with Vesuvius' volatile nature its eruptions are characterized by explosions that rocket out deadly gas and dust, not just slow-moving floods of lava this population density makes the volcano the most dangerous in the world, scientists say.

As a result, it also is the most monitored volcano on the planet, with a belt of 30 stations and a network of other detection devices peppered around its base, according to Macedonio.

The devices can warn of a potential eruption within a few months, but no earlier. Studies show that Vesuvius has a major eruption on a cycle of every 200 years or more; the last was in 1631, when about 3,500 people were killed.

After years of warning by concerned scientists, government officials have finally taken heed. In 1995, they created a 25,000-acre national park on the uppermost parts of the volcano to halt further building. This year, park officials were empowered to tear down illegal construction within its boundaries.

About 800 structures from restaurants and resort villas to house additions such as balconies have been built in the park without permission, estimates Amilcare Troiano, president of National Park of Vesuvius. So far, 30 have been removed. (Volcanoes in the USA, Troiano points out, are intentionally buffered by sparsely populated national parks.)

In early October, the country's highest court struck down a popular appeal to award amnesty to those who have constructed illegally in the park and in towns in the high-risk "red zone" of the volcano.

More than 50,000 people sought the amnesty, which would have made their constructions legal. (Officials estimate at least twice as many people have constructed illegal homes, hotels and other buildings without permits or on land they don't even own.)

The amnesty appeal was backed by the national government. That's an indication, local planners say, of how controversial their efforts are to crack down on population growth in the area and also of the divisions between Italy's national government and the regional government in Naples.

"It can be very dangerous. They all hate us," Troiano confesses.

After receiving a few death threats at the start of the demolition program, Troiano and his staff were assigned carabinieri police to protect them. The threats have since diminished as local residents have begun to accept the program.

But by far the most ambitious aspect of the Vesuvius emergency plan is the effort to relocate many of the area's residents. Last month, regional officials announced they would pay up to 30,000 euros about $36,000 for each family unit that moves outside the red zone. The old homes are meant to be destroyed or converted into bed and breakfasts for tourists coming to visit Vesuvius. The grants must be spent on a new home.

The goal is to reduce the population by as much as 150,000 within 15 years, according to Marco Di Lello, director of urban planning for the Campania Region, home to Vesuvius. So far, about 1,000 people have requested applications; the deadline for this first year of funding is Nov. 15.

"We're not saying everyone should leave," Di Lello stresses. "This is mainly aimed at young people, even renters, to get them to set up households elsewhere. Or to older retired people who might want to move anyway."

It would take two weeks to evacuate the 580,000 people now living in the highest risk zones, according to Di Lello. By contrast, only eight to 10 days would be needed to evacuate 400,000. Plans have been made to move people to other regions in Italy, where they would likely have to live for several months, or perhaps even permanently.

Getting everyone out safely and quickly may not be the biggest headache the government faces, though. Scientists now know that volcanoes send out signals rumblings and magma fractures among other symptoms that warn of a potential eruption in time to evacuate threatened residents.

The precursors 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 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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