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Residents near the volcano outside Mexico City prepare to evacuate

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

For the past few days in Mexico, the volcano popularly known as El Popo has been spewing a toxic mix of ash and smoke. Now, the residents who live in its shadow have been told to prepare for a possible evacuation. Ash from the volcano has delayed flights from Mexico City and forced authorities to close schools in nearby towns, as James Fredrick reports.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: The smog that so often covers Mexico City can obscure the view and make it easy to forget about the glacier-topped mountain range that rings around the southeast of the city. But one of those peaks has been reminding locals of its presence via a light dusting of ash covering sidewalks and windshields. Popocatepetl, the towering majestically conical 17,900-foot volcano 45 miles outside of Mexico City, is waking up a bit. It's been spouting steam and ash regularly and occasionally exploding more violently, sending rocks flying outside the crater. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says they're watching closely and are prepared.

PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He says they've been working since strong eruptions first started. Thousands of National Guard troops are waiting and ready to aid evacuations if activity intensifies. The dusting of ash and distant rumbling isn't unprecedented. Popocatepetl had similar activity in 1994 and in the early 2000s and again from 2012 to 2016. There hasn't been a catastrophic eruption since the ninth century. But with more than 25 million people living within a 60-mile radius of the volcano, most of them in Mexico City, it's hard not to be a bit concerned. Authorities recently raised the stoplight warning system to yellow phase three, one step away from the dangerous red alert.

LAURA VELAZQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Laura Velazquez, the national coordinator of civilian protection, says they're preparing staff, evacuation equipment and shelters should they become necessary. Over the last 24 hours, the team monitoring El Popo registered two major explosions, five emissions of steam, volcanic gas and ash and near-constant tremors. Popocatepetl, which means smoking mountain in Nahuatl, is not yet a threat to people. For now, authorities are urging calm. The time-lapse videos of the volcano early this morning as it lit up the night sky with its eruptions are terrifying but undeniably beautiful. For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick, in the shadow of Popocatepetl in Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAREN MORRIS SONG, "GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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