Here in the Philippines, we live within sight of an extinct volcano, and less than 100 miles from the great Mt.Pinatubo.

Mt Pinatubo, whose eruption was so severe that it lowered the world average temperature a degree, showed the world how devastating a volcanic eruption can be, but it also showed the world how a well planned evacuation could save hundreds of thousands of lives.

We weren’t living here at the time, however, but the lahar did destroy towns west of us in Pampanga. And, like many local Philippinos, our relatives took in a family of refugees, giving them food and shelter in exchange for minor chores, until the family felt safe enough to go home.

In some ways, the eruption was “lucky”,: it got bad quickly, but not so fast that people weren’t warned. So despite the chaos (which included a supertyphoon) people left their homes in time.

Not all volcanoes, of course, are like Mt Pinatubo: some are like the volcanoes in Hawaii, that emit rivers of slow moving lava that destroy towns but lack the fast moving death clouds of pyroclastic flows.

But the real dangerous volcanoes are those who “cry wolf”: where they have one minor eruption after another, until locals just get tired of evacuating and stay put.

This is what’s going on in southern Colombia, where one of my adopted sons lives.

He returned home when he was 21 to take care of his older birth-sister and her family, and has been there since.

Their town, Pasto, unlike the modern cities of Cali or Bogata, still has a “South American” feel to it: most of the buildings are low with white walls. Yes, there is a lot of traffic, but not the heavy industrialization of the larger cities.

Photo from IHT Latin America website.

And the town is located in a high valley: so high that you have to drive down the Pan American highway, descending to a lower altitude to get to the airport. Like other Colombian airports, landing is a “white knuckle” affair for some of us: The pilot has to descend in-between peaks to land, and it was not comforting when we went swimming at the local resort near the airport, and my sons pointed out where a plane had missed the runway and crashed years earlier.

The main problem in the town was not crime or drugs (it is too high to grow cocaine, although FARC was still in the area when I visited). The problem was the nearby volcano that towered over the town, Galeras.

Those of you who watch National Geographic Channel might know about it because back in 1993, some scientists who went up the volcano when they thought it was safe were killed.

There was some controversy about whether they could have been saved if they had heeded “warnings” on the seismograph. Nowadays (but not back then) scientists know that a certain type of wave warned of an eruption.

To me, this seems a bit moot. The scientists were there because 600 thousand Colombians, including some of my family, might be killed. I figure they should have been thanked and seen as heroes without Monday morning quarterbacking. It’s not as if they were killed in a major eruption: it was actually a tiny eruption as these things go, only killing the scientists and some local tourists who were right there at the caldera.

Tourists? Yup. The town of Pasto is literally at the base of the volcano, and my sons said locals frequently hiked up to the caldera. They themselves had been up several times with other of the older boys from their orphanage, and no one thought a thing about danger.

Yet when the scientists were killed, the volcano was doing quite a bit of rumbling, frightening locals, to the point that evacuation plans had been made, not just in the villages on the mountain, but also in the city of Pasto. At one point, the smoke and earthquakes were so bad that they were packed, waiting for the “leave” order to evacuate.

The problem: The “leave” order never came.

Every couple of years since then, Galeras has rumbled, and there has even been a few minor eruptions that sent pyroclastic flows down slopes but not toward the city. This happened in 2006, and this February.

So today’s news is not good news: Galeras again is erupting, and the small villages on the slopes are being ordered to evacuate, but after so many warning, even these farmers are staying put.

Now when emergency service officials asked locals to evacuate, most refused to leave, saying they were afraid their goods or animals would be stolen.

They also said that for many years there have been alerts and nothing serious ever happened, and furthermore they have grown used to living with showers of ash and the occasional sulphurous odors.

Stubborn farmers face floods, mudslides, disease, accidents and poverty, so what is a volcano eruption or two?

Yet the real danger is if the volcano would have a major eruption, sending pyroclastic flows south into the city of Pasto.Will locals, who have lived with warnings on and off for the last 16 years, evacuate? Will they be only be required to evacuate to the south side of town (which goes up the other side of the valley) or have to leave the isolated valley on the limited road system?

If Galeras becomes another Pinatubo, it could be a major disaster. But even a minor eruption could kill thousands if farmers refuse to evacuate because of so many false alarms.

So far, local vulcanologists have only evacuated local villages, but the city is again on yellow alert as the volcano again cries “wolf”.


Volcano Webcam HERE.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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