About 70,000 people live among the volcanic islands of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas with little fear of eruption because they have been so rare.
Even after the eruption a week ago on the tiny island of Anatahan — the first significant eruption on a Northern Marianas since 1981 — some exiles in the bustling capital of Saipan still yearned to return to lush outer islands that have erupted in the past.
But scientists say the lack of warning before the eruption on Anatahan, where steam continued to rise Sunday, should put local and federal officials on alert.
A seismic monitoring system set up by the Northern Marianas government is not functioning because of a lack of funds to maintain it, according to technician Juan T. Camacho of the islands' Emergency Management Office.
"The area has been to some degree ignored," said geologist Patrick Shore of Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. "Now, thank goodness, without loss of life, there has been a warning."
A handful of people had been on Anatahan but left a few days before the May 10 eruption sent a four-mile-high pillar of smoke and ash over the northern Pacific.
"We were lucky," Shore said. His team of geologists had stopped at Anatahan May 6 during a trip to place functioning seismographs along the 14-island chain and found no hint of an impending eruption.
Shore said the new seismographs couldn't be used for a warning system because data is only collected every three months. The equipment will, however, provide valuable history that could be used if monitors can be set up to send live signals to Saipan.
The Anatahan eruption was first spotted by infrared satellite images monitored by the National Weather Service on Guam, 200 miles south — and then spotted by Shore's team May 11 as they were returning to Saipan.
"It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life" said Sara Pozgay, a Washington University graduate student on the team. She described the cloud formed by the volcano as full of lightning created by static electricity built up from particles in the cloud.
The commonwealth's governor, Juan Babauta, declared a state of emergency after the eruption and barred most boats and planes from within 30 miles of Anatahan. Camacho said a team of scientists hopes to get onto the island Monday to take measurements.
About 70,000 people live on the Marianas and 150,000 on Guam. All the islands are volcanic.
The last previous eruption in the region occurred in 1995, according to Camacho, but it was a minor undersea volcano, detected only after dead fish were found with ash in their gills.
Joe Kaipat was 14 when a volcano on Pagan erupted in 1981. His family was among 56 island residents to safely evacuate. None has returned.
"My heart's still there," said Kaipat, who lives in Saipan — even as he recalled the increasing earthquakes that preceded the eruption and the terror of his escape.
"Saipan is really crowded now," he said. "I want to go back to Pagan."
By David Briscoe