Mount Usu evacuees make brief visit home


About 60 residents of the town of Sobetsu near Mount Usu in southwestern Hokkaido were allowed to briefly visit their homes Saturday afternoon after authorities partially lifted evacuation orders, local officials said.

Some 60 households in two districts of Sobetsu received the green light for temporary returns Saturday morning, with one person per household allowed to go home for about 30 minutes while accompanied by police or firefighters.

The aim was to allow evacuees to check that that their homes were safe and to take needed items back with them.

The residents were divided into five groups and transported in three vans, a fire truck and a military vehicle.

Authorities said the visits would be extended Sunday to evacuees living around the Lake Toya hot spring, bringing to about 140 the number of households allowed briefs visits.

Some of the evacuees have been living in shelters for as many as 10 days.

Saturday’s visits were originally scheduled for the morning but were delayed until the afternoon due to bad weather. Clouds in the morning obstructed visibility at Mount Usu, making it difficult to see possible danger signs on the mountain.

The evacuation order was issued to cope with the eruptions of the 732-meter volcano. The mountain erupted March 31 for the first time in nearly 23 years and has since been emitting ash, steam, smoke and rock.

Volcanic activity continued Saturday, as the mountain’s numerous craters released plumes of smoke that reached as high as 1,000 meters.

Volcanologists repeated their warning that a violent eruption remains possible, and the Meteorological Agency and Hokkaido University have stepped up their monitoring of the volcano.

Meanwhile, scallop farmers in the city of Date and town of Abuta were unable to tend to their farms Saturday morning due to the weather conditions, although they had earlier been granted permission to enter the off-limits part of the sea temporarily, local officials said.

The scallop farmers were to be allowed to operate for an hour each in the morning and afternoon.

They have been unable to care for their cultured scallops since the coastal areas near the town were designated dangerous after the first eruption a week ago and fear that the scallops will be ruined.

In the afternoon, dozens of fishing boats left Toyoura harbor, but strong winds forced them to return to port empty-handed.

The bad weather also forced technicians to abandon efforts to collect data from a satellite-based monitoring station set up in Abuta.

A number of central government officials were scheduled to inspect the vicinity of Mount Usu over the weekend.

Toshihiro Nikai, director general of the Hokkaido Development Agency and transport minister, visited the local crisis-management headquarters and an evacuation center in the town of Oshamambe on Saturday afternoon.

Some 13,000 people from the three municipalities closest to the volcano have evacuated their homes, according to the Hokkaido Prefectural Government.

Of them, about 5,000 are staying at schools and community centers that have been turned into public shelters.

Mount Usu erupted March 31.