• Kyodo

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Though Friday marked three months since Mount Usu first started erupting March 30, nearly 2,300 residents of the Lake Toya hot spring resort area who were evacuated to public facilities and temporary prefabricated houses in safer areas are still unable to return home.

The first of the eruptions occurred at 1:10 p.m. on March 30, opening cracks on the slopes of the 732-meter volcano, located 70 km southwest of Sapporo.

Volcanic activities on Mount Usu seem to have subsided since then, but the government has yet to lift the evacuation order for the area.

Hokkaido University professor Hiroshi Okada, who serves as chairman of the Coordinating Committee for the Prediction of Volcanic Eruptions, a government panel of volcano experts, said underground magma is no longer moving toward the surface of the mountain.

However, Tadahide Ui, another Hokkaido University professor and a member of the government’s committee, warned that columns of smoke are still spewing from three craters on the northwestern slope of the mountain.

“It will be difficult for us to lift the evacuation order in the area by the end of this year,” he predicted.

So far, about 660 prefabricated houses have been completed, but the lack of temporary housing for single people has forced nearly 500 evacuees — mostly elderly people who live separately from their families and people who have lost their jobs — to stay in various public facilities used as shelters.

“I wonder how long I will have to live like this. At night, I cannot sleep well because of the noise around me,” said Masami Ishida, 56, who has been staying at a school gymnasium in the town of Abuta, west of the volcano. “We have to totally depend on our savings now. I don’t know how I can continue sending money to my son, who goes to school in Sapporo.” At the Lake Toya hot spring resort area, work to restore a sewerage system is under way, but some local businesspeople are concerned about the serious damage caused by ash and the sulfurous smell from the volcano.

“We are not even sure whether our employees will come back,” a local businessman said.

While nearly 800 people have been dismissed from their jobs due to the eruption, hotels and inns in the resort area are suffering from a dwindling number of guests — about 20 percent fewer than the previous year.

In Abuta, public facilities have been severely damaged by mud flows.

Some local residents have begun urging the government to preserve the damaged buildings in the area in a bid to attract sightseers in the future.

But it seems more time will be required for the towns around Mount Usu to be revived.