Volcano Awareness Month is a reminder to prepare for disasters

May 24, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Issaquah faces risk from volcanic ash amid Cascade eruption

Majestic Mount Rainier, peeping through the gap between Tiger and Squak mountains, stands as a constant reminder to prepare for emergencies.

The looming volcano, like Mount Baker to the north and Mount St. Helens to the south, is active and although geologists do not expect Mount Rainier to erupt anytime soon, emergency planners remind residents to prepare. May is Volcano Awareness Month.

“It’s one of the things where we actually have to remind people that a volcano is one of our hazards,” said Bret Heath, city Public Works Operations and emergency management director. “Everybody looks at Mount Rainier down in the valley there on a nice day and goes, ‘Ah, beautiful mountain’ — until it goes off.”

Issaquah sits outside the area under threat from Mount Rainier lahars, a debris-strewn mudflow streaming from a volcano, but volcanic ash, or tephra, could impact transportation and air quality in East King County. In the area surrounding the mountain, lahars pose a greater hazard than lava and poisonous gases.

Though lava flows might not extend more than a few miles beyond Mount Rainier National Park boundaries, lahars could reach as far north as South King County.

Heath and other emergency planners identify volcanic eruptions as a potential threat to Issaquah.

Carolyn Driedger, hydrologist and outreach coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash., said numerous volcanoes in the Cascade Range remain active.

“I think it’s important for people to realize that this is not an ancient mountain range formed long ago,” she said. “These are features in progress — under construction.”

The catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, served as a dramatic reminder.

“They’re doing what volcanoes do,” Driedger continued. “That means that they sleep for a long period of time, and then they awaken and they erupt.”

John Schelling, earthquake, tsunami and volcano program manager for the state Emergency Management Division, said alerting people to risks from volcanic eruptions remains a hurdle.

“One of the big challenges we have with volcanoes is, unlike other natural hazards, like tsunamis or earthquakes, they don’t happen every day,” he said.

In the aftermath

If a Cascade volcano erupted and impacted Issaquah, crews could plow streets if ash accumulated, as Yakima County did after Mount St. Helens erupted 31 years ago. The gritty byproduct could cause disposal problems as well.

“Every time it’s disturbed by human activity or by the wind, it whips up into the air again, and it reduces visibility,” Driedger said.

The possibility also exists for structures to fail as rain soaks and weighs down volcanic ash, although the potential is remote in the Puget Sound region.

“It’s like trying to work and deal with something like a heavy snowfall, except the stuff isn’t going away,” Heath said. “It’s everywhere and it’s abrasive.”

The material can be murderous on equipment and vehicles, creating the potential to grind transportation to a halt.

“Driving in ash can turn an operating vehicle into one that doesn’t work so well fairly quickly,” Heath said.

Following the May 1980 eruption, volcanic ash dusted Issaquah. Eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana bore the brunt from the ashfall.

Not every eruption is as dramatic, and smaller eruptions can also belch ash, gases and steam into the atmosphere.

“Unfortunately, even a small amount of ash can cause some significant disruptions,” Driedger said. “I guess the good news for Issaquah is that Mount Rainier is not as much of an ash producer as Mount St. Helens.”

Mount Rainier last erupted in the 19th century and although the mountain is quiet nowadays, geologists continue to monitor the Cascade volcanoes for signs of activity, such as earthquakes and glacial melting.

Congress is also considering a proposed National Volcano Early Warning System to improve monitoring of numerous volcanoes nationwide, including Mount Rainier in Pierce County, Mount Baker in Whatcom County, Mount St. Helens in Skamania County and Glacier Peak in Snohomish County.

“Something we learned from Mount St. Helens is that the onset of unrest is a really bad time to be playing catch-up on monitoring,” Driedger said.

Prepare for volcanic eruptions

May is Volcano Awareness Month and although many steps to prepare for volcanic eruptions mirror emergency preparedness for other disasters, key differences exist.

“If you can become prepared for an earthquake, you’re more than likely prepared for a volcanic event, and vice versa,” said John Schelling, earthquake, tsunami and volcano program manager for the state Emergency Management Division.

In addition to the supplies outlined below, residents should also consider plastic sheeting to protect sensitive electronics from volcanic ash.

  • Determine if you live or work in a volcano hazard area and learn about community warning systems, emergency plans and evacuation routes.
  • Prepare for hazards resulting from volcanic eruptions: mudflows and flash floods, landslides and rock falls, earthquakes, ashfall and acid rain, and, in some cases, tsunamis.
  • Plan a couple of evacuation routes out of your neighborhood, and become familiar with your community’s pre-established evacuation routes.
  • Procure goggles and disposable breathing masks for each member of the household in case of ashfall. Add them to disaster kits at home and in all vehicles.
  • Stay out of the area defined as a restricted zone by government officials, because the effects of a volcanic eruption can be experienced many miles from a volcano.

Source: King County Office of Emergency Management

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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