Published: January 2008

The Unstoppable Mud

Drowning Mud

Drowning in Mud

An unnatural disaster erupts with no end in sight.

By Andrew Marshall
Photograph by John Stanmeyer
By dawn, the trickle that began to seep into the neighborhood during the night had become a scalding torrent. Mud surged into the modest house belonging to Sumitro, who manages a store in the Porong District of East Java. As it smothered furniture and filled rooms, Sumitro and Indayani, his wife, grabbed the kids and fled. "I knew the mud couldn't be stopped," he says. "My house was doomed."

Months later, a plume of steam drifting above a landscape of submerged houses marks the source of his woes: a mud volcano—its cause a source of some controversy. Many blame a company drilling for gas; others claim an earthquake was the trigger. Lusi, as Indonesians call the mudflow, is one of the more bizarre expressions of Indonesia's geologic turmoil. Since May 2006, it has spewed millions of barrels of heated sludge, blanketing an area twice the size of New York City's Central Park. Villages have disappeared under the mud, 60 feet (18 meters) deep in places, and 10,000 families have been forced from their homes. So far, according to an IMF estimate, the catastrophe has cost Indonesia 3.7 billion dollars—nearly one percent of its GDP—and triggered spasms of blame and denial. This being Indonesia, it has also prompted appeals to the supernatural.

Lusi—a nickname derived by combining the Indonesian word for mud (lumpur) with Sidoarjo, the name of the nearby town—could go on erupting for decades. Meanwhile, trucks and backhoes work relentlessly to contain the damage, fortifying dikes against the 600,000 barrels of mud that continue to surge out each day. Pipes disgorge the sludge into the Porong River; theoretically, rain will wash it to sea—if it doesn't choke the river and flood nearby Surabaya, a city of 2.5 million.

With the mud came the mystics—Sumatran witch doctors, Balinese Hindu priests, and a celebrity soothsayer, Mama Lauren—claiming they could stop the deluge. Believers tossed goats, geese, and monkeys into the mud to appease the dragon supposedly disturbed by drilling. A wealthy local offered a house to anyone who could halt the mud. First, however, applicants had to prove their powers could stop a tap from dripping. It didn't happen.

Wary of mystics, weary of mud, Sumitro is short on optimism. "Nothing can stop it," he says. "Not technology, not the supernatural."

A dike protected Sumitro's neighborhood until November 2006, when the mud caused a gas pipeline to explode, killing 13 people. "I thought the end of the world had come," he recalls.

In a way, it had. The explosion weakened the dike, exposing his neighborhood to the flow. Now, footprints of fleeing residents are baked into the mud of empty streets. Scavengers have stripped homes of roof tiles and wiring. The stink of sulfur hangs in the air. "Nothing left now," Sumitro says. "Only memories."
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