Prologue 2

Mount Rainier Erupts

Government Predictions Confirmed;

Major Disaster Averted

Seattle, May 19, 2010 (AP)

Mount Rainier exploded yesterday in a major volcanic eruption that caused serious property damage across the southern part of the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area. The relatively low initial death toll of 45 was credited to one of the most extensive disaster preparations in U.S. history, carried out over the past four years by state and municipal governments in conjunction with members of the United States Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program (VHP). Most of the casualties were thrill-seekers and photographers who ignored posted warnings and sneaked into the evacuation zone north and west of the volcano.

The eruption had three main parts, each affecting a different part of the region. At 8:31 a.m., the north flank of the volcano collapsed in a landslide, releasing a searing explosive blast that flattened trees, houses, and bridges across the southeastern suburbs of Seattle. Within an hour, mudflows surged down the volcano’s western valleys where they were mostly contained and diverted by massive levees into huge, human-made basins. Throughout the day, the hills east of Kent were blanketed with up to 10 inches of rain-soaked ash that made roads impassable and collapsed the roofs of numerous buildings.

Although sobered by these property losses, public officials rejoiced that the unprecedented evacuations over the previous three days had been largely successful in preventing more deaths. The eruption was seen as a validation of the VHP, whose staff size increases, high-tech focus, and longstanding university and international partnerships allowed for near-pinpoint prediction of most of yesterday’s events.

Early warnings from instrument networks and computer models let civil defense planners stage targeted evacuations, similar to those used since the 1980s to remove people from the paths of hurricanes. What was earlier feared to be a nearly impossible task—rapidly moving more than a million residents out of the potentially affected area in an orderly way—went remarkably smoothly,



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Review of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program Prologue 2 Mount Rainier Erupts Government Predictions Confirmed; Major Disaster Averted Seattle, May 19, 2010 (AP) Mount Rainier exploded yesterday in a major volcanic eruption that caused serious property damage across the southern part of the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area. The relatively low initial death toll of 45 was credited to one of the most extensive disaster preparations in U.S. history, carried out over the past four years by state and municipal governments in conjunction with members of the United States Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program (VHP). Most of the casualties were thrill-seekers and photographers who ignored posted warnings and sneaked into the evacuation zone north and west of the volcano. The eruption had three main parts, each affecting a different part of the region. At 8:31 a.m., the north flank of the volcano collapsed in a landslide, releasing a searing explosive blast that flattened trees, houses, and bridges across the southeastern suburbs of Seattle. Within an hour, mudflows surged down the volcano’s western valleys where they were mostly contained and diverted by massive levees into huge, human-made basins. Throughout the day, the hills east of Kent were blanketed with up to 10 inches of rain-soaked ash that made roads impassable and collapsed the roofs of numerous buildings. Although sobered by these property losses, public officials rejoiced that the unprecedented evacuations over the previous three days had been largely successful in preventing more deaths. The eruption was seen as a validation of the VHP, whose staff size increases, high-tech focus, and longstanding university and international partnerships allowed for near-pinpoint prediction of most of yesterday’s events. Early warnings from instrument networks and computer models let civil defense planners stage targeted evacuations, similar to those used since the 1980s to remove people from the paths of hurricanes. What was earlier feared to be a nearly impossible task—rapidly moving more than a million residents out of the potentially affected area in an orderly way—went remarkably smoothly,

OCR for page 13
Review of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program thanks in large part to a five-year public education campaign. Engineers were especially pleased that the widespread reinforcement and retrofit campaign for roofs, dams, bridges, and factories, carried out under the Federal Disaster Mitigation Act of 2004, appeared to have saved most of the structures. Contacted at his home in Hilo, Hawaii, the retired former head of the USGS’s Hawaiian and Cascades Volcano Observatories sounded both relieved and proud. “Although the number of victims claimed by Mount Rainier was still too high, scientists and citizens alike should feel satisfied that their investments of time and money were rewarded in such spectacular fashion. The relatively small amount of destruction is a testament to the central role that federally coordinated scientific research can play in reducing the dangers of natural hazards.” For more details see Chapter 6.