Ten scientists, emergency managers, and first responders from communities near Colombia's Nevado del Ruiz volcano will visit Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens this week. While in the U.S., the Colombian officials will work with their counterparts in the Washington Emergency Management Division, Pierce County Department of Emergency Management, Orting Valley Fire and Rescue, Mount Rainier National Park, U.S. Forest Service Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Whatcom County Department of Emergency Management, and the U.S. Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory. They will learn how U.S. officials and scientists here prepare for and manage disasters, and along the way share their own hard-earned advice about volcanic disasters, including the importance of monitoring volcanoes carefully, the necessity of clear communication between scientists and officials, and community preparedness.
Colombia suffered one of the worst volcanic disasters of the 20th century in November 1985 when ice-clad Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted and communities at its base were destroyed by large lahars (volcanic debris flows) that swept down the valleys draining the summit area. More than 23,000 fatalities occurred in the once thriving city of Armero and in smaller communities. The disaster had a profound and constructive effect on scientific and disaster management in Colombia and around the world.
After the tragic event in Colombia, the USGS and the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, joined forces to create an international volcano response team, the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program that aids volcano monitoring and eruption response in other countries when requested. Since 1985 the group, stationed at CVO in Vancouver, Wash., has responded to more than 25 volcano crises and eruptions, built volcano monitoring infrastructure in 12 countries and helped save tens of thousands of lives. USGS scientists who witnessed the aftermath of the Armero disaster, returned to the United States and redoubled their efforts to educate local officials and populations at risk. Many of the same VDAP volcanologists who work in Colombia also work to monitor and study Mount Rainier from CVO.
"There is nothing hypothetical or exotic about the hazards from Mount Rainier. It is an active volcano with about a cubic mile of ice on its flanks that is available to fuel lahars in the next eruption," said USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory Scientist-in-Charge, John Ewert. "Many lahars from Mount Rainier have inundated valleys all the way to Puget Sound, areas that are now densely populated and important to the economy of Washington state"
In Washington state, five glacier-clad volcanoes, similar in many respects to Nevado del Ruiz, threaten populated areas near the volcanoes. At Mount Rainier, the threat of lahars to populations on valley floors tens of kilometers distant has long been considered akin to the situation at Nevado del Ruiz. Mount Rainier is potentially one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the U.S. owing to its eruptive style and frequency, coupled with the more than 100,000 people and greater than $10 billion of developed property in theareas potentially subject to lahars, as well as a vast amount of people, infrastructure, and economic activity farther away in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area that are subject to volcanic ash fall. Participants will also visit Mount St. Helens to discuss its 2004 eruption, evacuation and role as a model for volcano tourism, science education and multiagency collaboration.
"Our exchange with the Colombians will have a very positive effect on future preparedness for Washington state," said John Schelling, Earthquake/Tsunami/Volcano Program Manager for Washington Emergency Management Division. "While we cannot play catch-up on monitoring nor with preparedness, this exchange is jumpstarting our next level of preparedness efforts."
Organized by the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory and the Washington Military Department's Emergency Management Division with support from the USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, the exchange allows the Colombian officials to observe and learn from U.S. emergency response systems, and for U.S. personnel to absorb best practices from the Colombians’ recent experiences with volcanic crises.
A full listing of Cascade Range volcano hazard assessments, simplified hazard maps, volcanic activity updates, information to sign up for the USGS Volcano Notification Service, and more are available at the USGS Volcano Hazards Program websites.