This chapter describes the immediate impact of the mudflows on the communities in northern Tolima and the characteristics of the disaster that created special problems. A brief description is provided of rescue and relief activities and of the types of losses caused by the mudflows. Long-term consequences to the region also are discussed.
IMMEDIATE POSTIMPACT ACTIVITIES
The Colombian Red Cross and Civil Defense personnel were the principal first responders to Armero, participating in and organizing rescue and medical care. The Colombian military also played an important role in the logistics of the rescue activities by providing helicopter airlift for victims in need of medical care, fueling and maintaining airlift operations, transporting and distributing supplies, and establishing field medical care and shelter facilities.
After the first 24 hours, resources of all types began to arrive through the joint efforts of the international disaster relief community, and the individual efforts of over 30 foreign countries. A major logistics problem in the first few hours concerned the requisitioning, fueling, and use of helicopters to rescue survivors trapped in or near the mudflow, and to carry those needing urgent emergency medical care to designated sites.
The primary activities during the immediate postimpact period of a disaster include search and rescue of those trapped or injured; assessment of the damage; emergency medical care for the injured; provision of short-term food and shelter for those displaced; recovery, identification, and burial of bodies; and reestablishment of lifelines.
Accounts of the Armero disaster emergency period indicate that it was
fairly typical of most disasters: assessments of the disaster began quickly; means for carrying out necessary functions were organized; and, over time, the coordination of the numerous players in the operations improved.
Early on in the emergency period, the Colombian president made a request for international assistance and much aid was received. However, in general, the disaster did not seem to be viewed as of unmanageable magnitude. National resources were transferred into the disaster area as needs were identified. With respect to organizing available resources, the nature of the disaster agent (mudflows) and the setting presented some specific challenges not present in all disasters. Some examples include the following:
The disaster occurred in the night, hampering initial rescue and assessment activities.
The mudflows affected many square kilometers, so survivors were scattered over a wide area and mobility in the valley was hampered by the impassable mud deposits. Aircraft, primarily helicopters, thus became the main method of search and rescue.
With Armero mostly destroyed (and possibly still in danger) and victims scattered widely, it was difficult to establish centralized emergency medical and care locations in the early hours.
Even with the high ratio of deaths to injuries, local medical care facilities (the largest hospital having been destroyed) were overwhelmed and many patients had to be taken to distant cities.
The limited number and small size of helicopters available in the first 48 hours limited the number of injured who could be transported to receive timely medical care.
The velocity as well as the abrasive and caustic properties of the mud created burns and other injuries that required special attention.
Clean water, in short supply due to damage to water systems, was needed not only for drinking purposes but in larger quantities for washing mud-covered survivors.
There was an initial concern about possible threats to the emergency operations from guerilla groups active in the Colombian countryside. (Such activities turned out to be minimal, and at least one major group declared a moratorium on hostile activities in the area because of the disaster.)
Additional problems became evident. These included:
Assessing the number of survivors to plan for. Because of the nature and extent of the mudflows, survivors were spread over a great area and the number of dead was not readily apparent. While a few thousand people were rescued by helicopters and taken to official emergency facilities, countless others walked away from the disaster site and made their own temporary care arrangements with relatives, friends, and even strangers in other communities in the region. Many reemerged when recovery assistance became available.
Reuniting families. In many instances, family members had become separated while fleeing the mudflow in the dark, or by being airlifted to different locations when they were rescued. With Armero destroyed, there was no centralized place to locate each other. Since they did not know where their relatives were, or even if they were alive, family members often advertised in the media or wandered from town to town looking for their kin in refugee camps and morgues for weeks after the catastrophe.
Handling and identifying the dead. Because of the complete destruction of some parts of town and the high death toll, bodies recovered in the early stages of the emergency period often went unclaimed. Most of the thousands of missing victims were forever entombed in the mud. However, many bodies continued to surface, creating a new set of problems.
As the immediate life-threatening circumstances are resolved following a disaster, attention and resources are generally turned to restoring normal communications, transportation routes, and services. These activities are important to the reestablishment of routine economic and social life, even if the available facilities are makeshift and temporary. Government reports indicated that within two weeks of the disaster the government of Colombia and other organizations had managed to reopen many of the roads in the area; construct some temporary bridges; establish means for supplying potable water to communities whose water systems had been disrupted; begin the repair of some of the damaged water and sewer systems and fuel pipelines; begin clearing river channels and removing other debris; and establish victim reception and locator centers, aid dispatching centers, and temporary refugee settlements.
For many kinds of disasters, the provision of temporary facilities and the reestablishment of routine activities are the major focus after the emergency period. However, for this disaster, there was also considerable urgency to improve and maintain a system for monitoring the volcano hazard, for providing a warning system, and for implementing community evacuations in the event of future eruptions or mudflows.
There was a high level of concern in the scientific community that there could be future events similar to or more devastating than that of November 13, 1985. Thus, resources had to be distributed between the two primary tasks of
reestablishing economic and social life in the region affected by the disaster and
protecting, on a day-to-day basis, the lives of tens of thousands of persons remaining at risk from the still active volcano.
Although permanent relocation of those at greatest risk was considered, this solution is not popular among those affected by it, and is complicated
and expensive to execute. In lieu of permanent relocation, it is necessary to provide an effective warning system. Since the November 13 event, several other evacuations or near-evacuations have occurred in the communities around Nevado del Ruiz, although no further disasters have yet resulted. Concerns about the improvement of the warning system are discussed in Chapter 8 .
By December 1985, the Colombian government had prepared an initial assessment of its losses, estimated at 34.94 billion pesos (US $218 million). 1 The government also estimated that over 200,000 people were directly or indirectly affected by the November 13 eruption. 2
Besides the estimated 24,000 deaths and 10,000 homeless, total losses (for all sites affected by the mudflows) included
approximately 50 school facilities, as well as many experienced teachers and administrators
two hospitals, including all their equipment and a portion of their trained staff
over 4,000 housing units
employment income in the affected regions, as a result of the disruption of major economic activities and the destruction of many industrial and commercial enterprises
portions of roads and railroad tracks, bridges, water and sewer systems, transmission lines, and fuel pipelines
6,000 acres of grain and other crops, as well as many livestock, portions of the agricultural infrastructure, and much prime farmland
While Armero was described by many as the primary regional agricultural service center, the town of Honda at the confluence of the Gualí and Magdalena rivers also served important economic functions for the area. Concern of local officials about indirect impacts from the mudflows in northern Tolima was evident during the study team’s visit to Honda, three months after the eruptions. The lahars had destroyed some structures and damaged the underpinnings of several bridges and the foundations of several buildings on the riverbank.
The mayor estimated there had been more than a 50 percent decline in economic activity in the three months since the eruption. The contamination of the river had greatly affected the local fishing industry and the tourist trade had fallen off precipitously since the eruption. Along with the curtailment of income from these major local industries had come a concomitant downturn in other local commercial activity.
A further problem was created by the damaged structures. Several build-
ings along one of the town’s main commercial streets, perched on the high river bank, were threatened by damaged foundations or the erosion of the river bank beneath them. The issue of whether to permit restoration of damaged and river-threatened structures was a major one in the community. In addition, a plan had been drawn up for developing a new commercial center in a safer area. However, the town officials seemed to feel that this could not be accomplished without outside financial assistance. It was not clear whether Honda would be assured of such assistance for any of these problems as part of the disaster recovery plan.
Social and psychological consequences also seemed likely to be felt for some time to come. One major type of social impact was that of the likely change in importance and character for one or more of the smaller communities in northern Tolima, now that there was a need for some other community to provide important regional functions (e.g., financial services, farm equipment sales and maintenance, a junior college) that Armero once provided. Also, the influx of refugees from Armero into some of the nearby towns was perceived as disruptive and undesirable.
Representatives of welfare and psychological services also pointed out the likelihood of long-term psychological and health impacts resulting from the tragedy. For instance, virtually everyone in the valley knew someone who had died in Armero, and many had lost relatives. In addition, many survivors had sustained handicapping injuries; others had lost their employment or property. Refugee families from Armero could expect to spend months in temporary shelter, with little prospect of returning to their former community.
Past experience would suggest that few will suffer from sustained and grave psychiatric problems. However, the more horrifying a disaster, the more severe and prolonged are the emotional consequences for the survivors. Sadness and depression over the loss of so many relatives and friends seemed likely to persist for a long time, with these emotions typically being heightened around the time of traditional celebrations. Further, the Armero townsite lies at an intersection of five roads. The mud-covered riverplain and the shells of houses will serve as reminders for a long time to come for those traveling about the region. Thus, it was recognized that an increase in special training for local health workers and the development of special mental health programs would be desirable in the affected communities.