One of the most tragic volcanic events of the 20th century occurred in Colombia, in 1985, when an eruption of Nevado del Ruiz produced lahars that swept down river valleys and destroyed communities in its path. Over 20,000 people perished.
Mount Rainier and other volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest’s Cascade Range are similar to Nevado del Ruiz in many respects—massive amounts of snow and ice, a long history of lahars, and narrow valleys leading to populated areas. Could what happened at Nevado del Ruiz happen in the Pacific Northwest? And if it did, are we prepared?
In 2013, the US-Colombia Bi-national Exchange was created to help scientists, emergency managers and first responders in both countries to learn from the events in Colombia and to work toward improving disaster preparedness in communities located near volcanoes. The Exchange allows the Colombian officials to observe and learn about U.S. emergency response systems and for U.S. personnel to absorb the hard-earned lessons from the Colombians’ experiences with volcanic crises.
Scientists, decision-makers, emergency officials, community leaders, teachers, parents, students—everyone has a responsibility to prepare for the next eruption. Your role in preparedness begins with learning about the hazards where you live, work or go to school, evacuation routes and how to access information during a crisis. Ask local and state emergency officials and schools about their plans and be ready to follow their guidance. Finally, gather basic emergency provisions and create a plan to reunite with family members if you are separated. The volcano may erupt, but the tragedy doesn’t have to happen. And that is the point.