Features

Prayer is no platitude in a 'ring of fire' home

International

Issue: "Cuban conundrum," Feb. 5, 2000

in Quito, Ecuador - With volcanic ashfall threatening my family and other residents of Quito, we have been offering daily prayers of gratitude for what we often take for granted: a roof over our heads. Quito lies in the "Avenue of the Volcanoes," also known as the "Ring of Fire." More than 31 mountains in this region are active volcanoes. Two, since October 1998, are in what experts describe as a "slow eruption process." Ash and vapor plumes from Guagua Pichincha-located just seven miles west of Quito-and Tungurahua, farther south-have been constant since then, but several big explosions, beginning last fall, have residents checking daily whether we are under evacuation alert. In January, evacuees near Tungurahua clashed with military troops, whom they accused of looting the town the troops were to guard. One person died; several were wounded. When heavy ashfall began in October, it happened on a Tuesday. Some dubbed the next day "Ash Wednesday." Volcanic ash is gray up close, can appear orange-brown while falling, and gives the city a white shroud. The November ashfall gave us a "White Thanksgiving," with sewer grates screened with plastic or burlap bags to keep the ash from clogging the sewers. Only a foreigner would think to weigh the ash-something to write about to the folks back home. The official stats: neighbors Don Pasqual and Fidel had 180 pounds of ash bagged by our curb. I added 70 pounds. Wet ash weighs 100 pounds per cubic foot. The newspapers are full of helpful news like this during ash storms. A concrete roof with 15 percent grade (like ours) can support 12 inches of ash. The most common roofing product in Ecuador, however, is Eternit, a brand name for asbestos sheets. It will support only 4 3/4 inches of ash. One letter short of "eternity," it is a long way from lasting forever. Over the years, it becomes brittle, sometimes with tragic results. One missionary, Steve Sutherland, fractured his pelvis in a fall through Eternit. Augusto Maldonado, who heads emergency services at Hospital Vozandes, expected a rise in respiratory problems from the ashfall. Instead, he learned that carbon monoxide poisoning and injuries due to falls (through roofs) were more common. Respiratory problems may make up one-tenth of emergency room visits then, while a third involve poisoning from propane heaters enclosed where windows are sealed to avoid ash blowing in. Another third are traumas from falls, as residents rush to sweep the ash from their flimsy roofs. During heavy ashfall, everyone is warned to stay inside, to wear dust masks, and to tape windows shut. But at Christmas, I cast caution to the ashen wind and unwrapped the plastic seal around our chimney. Our family lit logs in the fireplace and played Bing Crosby's "Chestnuts Roasting on An Open Fire." And we thanked God for the (concrete) roof over our heads.

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