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A giant awakes

Victims covered in ash, Pompeii

Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana once said, "People never believe in volcanoes until the lava actually overtakes them." He would have done well at the National Hurricane Center.

Pompeii. It is a name we all know quite well because of famous and tragic ending experienced by the flourishing resort city in ancient Rome.

The city was a place of beauty and decadence, nestled next to Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano. As we know, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius came suddenly and without warning trapping everyone in Pompeii resulting in their deaths. The eruption took place in 79 A.D. and buried the city under volcanic ash that weirdly preserved the remains of its residents. It is estimated that two thousand people died in the eruption.

Jet ahead to 1985.

The Armero tragedy (Tragedia de Armero) occurred following the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz stratovolcano in Tolima, Columbia on November 13, 1985. The volcano's eruption came after 69 years of dormancy and caught nearby towns unaware, even though volcanological organizations had warned the government to evacuate the area after they detected volcanic activity two months earlier; a warning that Pompeii never had.

As lava flows erupted from the volcano, they melted down the mountain causing mud-ash flows that moved at 30 miles per hour in what was similar to landslides.

Picking up speed as these flows encountered gullies, they engulfed the town of Armero killing 20,000 of the town’s 25,000 inhabitants. Because of the government’s ignoring of the warnings, it was said that the volcano did not kill the 20,000 but rather the government had killed them.

To make matters worse, any response and recovery efforts were hindered or completely prevented due to the consistency of the mud which made any transport nearly impossible. By the time relief workers reached Armero twelve hours after the eruption, many of the victims with serious injuries were dead. The relief workers were horrified by the landscape of fallen trees, disfigured human bodies, and piles of debris from entire houses.

While Columbia has become famous for another type of “blow”, many eyes are on the country once again as the the Nevado del Ruiz volcano is showing signs of waking up once again, but this time the government is listening.

As of yesterday, Colombia's government was trying to speed up the evacuation of some 2,500 families living closest to the volcano, which is being monitored for a possible eruption, but some residents are refusing to leave.

The government has raised the volcano's alert level to orange, following a surge in seismic activity that suggests a heightened chance of an eruption in the coming days or weeks. Only one level is higher on the four-color alert scale: red, which means an eruption is imminent or under way.

While the evacuation is being taken seriously by many, there are some that are just refusing to leave claiming that they survived the 1985 eruption so there is no reason to leave this time.

As mentioned before in my blogs, there is a hard-to-explain logic that drives people in disaster-prone areas that makes the job of emergency management almost impossible.

But some residents, including families who survived the devastating 1985 eruption by the Nevado del Ruiz, which straddles the border between Tolima and Caldas provinces, say they will not go (see also wildfires, see also hurricanes, see also floods). This refusal is despite the recent activity which is not just underground and detectable to scientists by is apparent as there have been over 11,600 earthquakes detected in the area due to the movement of “underground fluid” which is causing ash emissions from the monster already.

The scary thing is that about 57,000 people live in the volcano’s hazard zone now which is spread over six provinces.

As we move toward hurricane season and I prepare to attend the Governor’s Hurricane Conference in Florida, my mind wanders to the regular cycle of ignorance followed by death followed by blame.

There is no doubt that lack of preparation for the disaster contributed to the high death toll in Columbia in 1985, but who’s lack? Armero had been built on an alluvial fan that had been overrun by historic mud-flows; authorities had ignored a hazard-zone map that showed the potential damage to the town from these volcano-induced mud and ash flows. Residents stayed inside their dwellings to avoid the falling ash, as local officials had instructed them to do, not thinking that they might be buried by the mud-flows in their own houses.

As this situation progresses, we can only hope that those in the path of this possible destruction evacuate as instructed and lives are saved, but based on mankind's history, I am afraid we could be looking at quite the opposite.

He who has ears let him hear.

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