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Indonesia Responds to Dual Natural Disasters

An elderly woman at a temporary shelter for people displaced by Mount Merapi eruption in Umbulharjo, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 27 Oct 2010

An elderly woman at a temporary shelter for people displaced by Mount Merapi eruption in Umbulharjo, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 27 Oct 2010

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will head to western Sumatra Thursday to support recovery efforts from a tsunami that killed more than 150 people, and an erupting volcano that left at least 25 dead. The president cut short his trip to Vietnam for a regional summit after the disasters struck.

Indonesia on Wednesday battled to recover from the disasters that hit the sprawling island nation within 24 hours of one another.

A tsunami triggered by a 7.7-magnitude earthquake slammed into the Mentawai Island chain in western Indonesia late Monday, killing scores. And in Central Java, Mount Merapi, the country's most active volcano, began spewing searing ash and debris late Tuesday.

Rough seas have hampered aid from reaching the Mentawais, which are about 200 kilometers off the coast of Sumatra. That island has experienced increasingly frequent seismic activity in recent years. A devastating earthquake in Padang city last September prompted the government to improve its rapid response and early warning systems.

Officials say the problem this time is access. Wednesday evening many relief groups were still waiting to leave for the islands, which can be reached only by boat or small aircraft.

Jimmy Nadapdap, who is coordinating the effort for international aid agency World Vision, says, "We are ready in terms of human resources to help. We have stock in our warehouse in Jakarta, as well as in Padang, just to be able to send a very quick non-food items or baby kit support, or pure water purification."

The national government has deployed ships carrying 16 tons of food, clothing and medicine, and officials say more aid workers will arrive in the coming days.

Private organizations are also lending a hand, including surfer-supported groups such as Last Mile Operations.

Director Matt George assisted with relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people. He says, "Any captain with a boat, any surf charter have put away their surf boards and are running around buying up foodstuffs, loading up their boats and helping anyway they can."

Relief efforts are also being mobilized to aid victims of Mount Merapi's eruption.

Aid workers there say rain on Wednesday provided welcome relief from the smoke and ash pouring off the mountain. They say face masks and drinking water are in immediate need. Around 40,000 people are seeking shelter as the government focuses on evacuations efforts.

Officials upgraded Merapi's activity status to its highest level Monday. But many people living on the volcano ignored the calls to evacuate.

Indonesia sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire - stretching from Alaska to South America, across to Indonesia and north to Japan. The vast area is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity.

No new eruptions have occurred since Tuesday evening, when a series of blasts sent hot gas and debris streaming down the mountain. Scientists continue to monitor Merapi's activity and have not dismissed the possibility of an even larger explosion.