Miyake Island Mayor Sukeyasu Hirano and other officials opened a local headquarters on the volcanic island Tuesday in preparation for the return of residents.

“I call on you to carry out preparations so that villagers can safely return to their homes,” Hirano told those manning the headquarters.

Miyake Island, located about 180 km south of Tokyo, has remained mostly deserted since an all-out evacuation order was issued in September 2000, when volcanic activity on Mount Oyama that began in July escalated. Volcanic activity has since subsided, but volcanic gas remains a hazard on some parts of the island.

Miyake village authorities decided earlier this month to lift the evacuation order in February so that islanders can return.

Areas with high concentrations of volcanic gas, mainly sulfur dioxide, are readily apparent — the branches of dead trees look like bones strewn across the hillsides. Homes in these districts seem inhabitable; window frames and roofs have been damaged by the gas.

Sulfur dioxide levels are measured around the clock at 14 points on the island. Village officials alert workers involved in reconstruction efforts via radio to don gas masks when levels exceed a certain point.

The Kanasozawa district on the eastern part of the island fell victim to mudflows from the volcano, and mud and debris still thickly cover the ground. Trees are stripped of their bark.

The bustling Miike district, home to 76 households and many inns and a beach, is expected to remain off-limits due to high levels of gas.

Things are better in the Ako district on the southwest corner of the island, home to green trees and birds.

The mayor visited Ako residents Tuesday during their brief trip to check on their properties.

Ako resident Shinichi Matsumoto, 60, a Buddhist priest, was removing ash from the grounds of his temple.

“I am speechless when I think of the elderly (islanders) who died without ever getting a glimpse of this island again,” he said. “I hope to set things right (at the temple) by February so I can accept people’s remains.”

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