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Continued Blasts From Mount Merapi Close Shops, Schools

A view from a domestic flight from Denpasar to Yogyakarta that was subsequently diverted to Surabaya airport shows a plume of gas and ash billowing some 10 kilometers high from the Mount Merapi volcano during an eruption, 04 Nov. 2010.

Ash from Indonesia's Mount Merapi has forced schools and restaurants to shut as eruptions grow more powerful. People say they are used to living with the volcano, but continued blasts are wearing them down.

Thursday's eruption is just the latest in a series that have left at least 44 people dead since the volanco became active on October 26.

Thick ash blankets trees and roads far from the summit of Mount Merapi. The volcano has belched hot gas and debris for more than a week, and increasingly forceful eruptions have sent ash raining down on communities up to 25 kilometers away.

Many of those who live on the volcano's slopes are used to sweeping ash from their floors and washing thick, grey soot from their crops and trees. But people who live in Jogjakarta say they have never seen ash this thick come this far.

Budi Utomo runs his family's guesthouse in Slemen. He says some foreign visitors have cancelled reservations, and he worries what will happen if the volcano's remains so active.

He says he sees that now in Jogjakarta it is too dusty and disturbing to people on holiday. For local and foreign tourists, and the people who live here, everyone is uncomfortable.

Utomo says the people of Jogjakarta understand Merapi's history and are not too afraid of its eruptions, which come every three or four years. The people in his neighborhood help each other sweep out the ash, and inquire about the health of friends and family.

But the ash is something they cannot avoid. Daily weather reports refer to ash rain, which hits different sections of the city depending on the wind direction. When a neighborhood gets hit, children get a break from school since the thick dust clouds can lead to eye infections and respiratory problems.

Utomo is not sure how badly the eruptions will hurt businesses, because while some tourists stay away, others have come to see the exploding volcano. He says a few visitors have asked him to help arrange trips up Merapi so they can get a closer look.

At his guesthouse the ash has put pressure on the staff cleaning the pool and dinning area. Everyone wears green surgical masks.

The masks are a staple at the evacuation camps as well. Doctors and relief workers worry that people will start to become sick if they breathe the dusty air for too long.

Children are the most vulnerable, and volunteers have started daily check-ups to make sure those in the camps stay healthy. Dr. Ai Alam, from the Indonesian Red Crescent Society, runs the health post at the Kepuharjo shelter.

The doctor says most people here have been suffering from respiratory infections, coughs, fevers, and eye infections and irritation. Around 100 people a day are getting sick or seeking treatment.

The 2,000 evacuees at Kepuharjo were living closest to the crater. Aside from the physical effects of the eruptions, doctors also worry about whether they suffered longer lasting psychological trauma.

Wednesday's blast, the biggest since eruptions began October 26, spewed out ash that quickly covered shelves in the open-air shops. Vibrant markets open one day are quiet the next. But aside from markets and restaurants most businesses are running as usual.

Government officials say they do not expect the volcano to affect the economy. And airlines that were grounded on Tuesday have resumed regular flight schedules.

The Ministry of Tourism's Web site says it is monitoring the volcano and warns visitors that it remains on high alert. But it also assures them that Jogjakarta is still safe and open for tourists.