The volcanic eruption in eastern Congo two days ago has killed at least 32 people, officials say, as residents searched for missing loved ones amid destroyed homes on the outskirts of the eastern city of Goma where aftershocks were detected.
With little warning, Mount Nyiragongo turned the dark sky fiery red Saturday night and then spewed torrents of lava into villages destroying more than 500 homes.
The toll on Monday increased from 22 to 32, and was likely to continue rising, said Joseph Makundi, head of Civil Protection for the North Kivu province.
More than a dozen people died in car accidents while trying to escape, he said. Others were killed when lava hit their homes. Some died on Monday from inhaling smoke or toxic gas when they were walking across a wide expanse of the cooling lava, the scientific director of the Volcanic Observatory of Goma, Celestin Kasereka Mahinda, told the Associated Press.
They were travelling on the road between Kibati and Goma that was cut off by a flow of lava 1000 metres wide, he said, uring Goma residents to avoid unnecessary travel.
Grief, disbelief, and fear hung over the area as a delegation of government ministers, including Congo’s health minister, visited Goma after flying in from neighbouring Rwanda.
Scientists at the volcano observatory were not able to adequately warn the public of the eruption because of a funding cut, Mahinda said.
“The observatory no longer has the support of the central government or of external donors, which explains why the volcanic eruption was such a surprise,” Mahinda said.
A partnership between the government and the World Bank that had supported the observatory was cut in October 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving the observatory without even internet, he said. The observatory had just started to resume operations last month thanks to new funding from the US Geological Survey’s Volcano Disaster Assistance Program, which meant the observatory could at least gather data after the eruption, he said.
The volcano remained active and earthquake tremors were being recorded, he said. The government ministers visiting Goma on Monday were assessing what aid is needed for those hurt by the eruption.
Goma’s international airport of Goma and the airport in Kavumu in South Kivu province were closed for security reasons, he said in a statement.
The volcano eruption caused about 5000 people to flee from one neighbourhood of Goma, a city of about two million people, across the nearby border into Rwanda.
Another 25,000 others sought refuge to the northwest in Sake, the UN children’s agency said. More than 170 children were still feared missing, and UNICEF officials said they were organizing transit centres to help unaccompanied children as more than 150 children were reportedly separated from their families.
Goma ultimately was largely spared the mass destruction caused by Mount Nyiragongo’s last eruption in 2002. Hundreds died then and more than 100,000 people were left homeless.