Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Life as a Refugee

Welcome to the refugee camp known as John F. Kennedy International Airport! Who would have guessed that a volcano thousands of miles away could turn a once bustling hub of international travel into an urban survival camp?

But that's what happened, since the volcano on Iceland came to life and has continued to spew ash into the atmosphere to such an extent that European air travel has ground to a halt, stranding hundreds of passengers who are now living full-time in at JFK and other airports around the world.

Consider the plight of Dominica Zschiesche, five days into an ordeal of unknown duration, washing her body with hand wipes and using the public bathroom sink to wash her hair and shave her legs.

A family from Belgium sits on the floor around a table they improvised out of a cardboard box.

A British structural engineer waiting for a flight to England was robbed of his wallet and is now stranded and completely out of money. "It's not very comfortable," he said. "You're indoors all the time. It's hot in there, sticky."

The Port Authority set up 1,000 cots and distributed blankets to stranded passengers in New York and New Jersey, and served hot meals and handed out bottles of water and baby wipes. Five days into the crisis, the Red Cross brought in trailers with a dozen showers, so folks like Dominica won't have to bathe in the bathroom sink anymore.

Hundreds more passengers are experiencing the same thing, at airports around the world where flights have been cancelled due to the volcanic ash cloud that can damage airplane engines. People are sprawled on blankest, sleeping directly on the cold, hard floor. "We have one meal a day," a stranded student at Incheon International Airport in South Korea commented, "At the moment a lot of people are not eating."

It would be somewhat easier if the stranded travelers had access to their personal items, but many of them already checked their luggage through, leaving them totally dependent on others to provide for them.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "We love them and we want them to have a good time, but it's kind of hard to do when you can't get your luggage or have to sleep on a cot.. There's no substitute for somebody that wants to get home. They're not going to be happy no matter what you do for them."

Unfortunately, teams of scientists are not optimistic about the future. For all the worldwide chaos that Iceland's volcano has already created, it may just be the opening act. The fear is that the tremors at the Eyjafjallajokull volcano might trigger an even more dangerous eruption at the Katla volcano nearby. If that were to happen, it could create a worst-case scenario for travelers worldwide, as an eruption at Katla is anticipated to be 10-times stronger and send ash higher into the atmosphere than the current volcanic eruption that has already strangled European air travel.

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