By Dialogo January 01, 2013
Sixty-four-year-old Juan García thought for a moment, whispered the name of a
family he once knew, and pressed a pencil to his notepad. In his sun-parched skin and
toughened hands one could see the years of sifting through the sands of Río Claro, Colombia,
alongside many of the family and friends in his community. Each of the 28 families he
carefully marked down represented a Río Claro family lost in the 1985 eruption of Colombia’s
“sleeping lion,” the Nevado del Ruiz volcano.
García’s hometown, just a speck on a map 300 kilometers northwest of Bogotá, was
all but ignored when Colombians heard that more than 20,000 were killed in the nearby city
of Armero. Still, 2,000 people perished in his riverside community of farmers and laborers
who spent their days sifting through the river for construction materials. García was in
nearby Chinchiná when Ruiz erupted. The next day, he borrowed an earth mover to clear the
road to his home, only to find that it had been swept away along with most of his neighbors’
homes by a mudslide.
The “Armero Tragedy” began at about 3 p.m. November 13, 1985, when ash began to
fall over the city, 50 kilometers east of Ruiz. The 29,000 people of Armero could not see
the volcano, and with no alert system and little understanding of volcanology, residents
took shelter in their homes. As the evening progressed, storms masked the rumbling of the
Ruiz erupted at 9:09 p.m., spewing pyroclastic material high into the atmosphere
and melting nearly a 10th of the 200 meters of glacial ice on the volcano’s rim. By the time
the roaring sound of 30-meter-high lahars, or mudslides, tearing down riverbeds at 60
kilometers an hour reached Armero at 11:30 p.m., it was too late.
Four successive waves of mud destroyed Armero to the east and pounded Río Claro and
Chinchiná to the west as the volcano belched more hot rock from its core. The only
survivors, according to García, were those who felt the trembling of the earth and
instinctively moved to higher ground.
“They felt it. They felt the power of the earth and they fled,” he said. “Those who
stayed on the hilltop escaped; those who remained below were carried away.”
García now lives atop a hill in what is called Río Claro Nuevo, in one of the homes
built by the Government to relocate survivors. But new residents have rebuilt the destroyed
homes along the riverbank and now could be in the path of Ruiz, which is considered on the
verge of another major eruption. Survivor stories don’t dissuade them, so authorities hope
science, technology and planning will.
Colombia and countries from Mexico to Chile have intensified the study of volcanoes
within their borders, devising risk maps, educating local populations and installing sirens
to alert residents to move to designated safe gathering points. In Colombia, both prevention
and disaster relief plans depend on a civil-military partnership strengthened through three
decades of close collaboration.
“We are all important actors in this process where if one falters, we all falter,”
said Milton Ordoñez, coordinator of surveillance projects at the Volcanic and Seismic
Observatory in Manizales, which is responsible for monitoring Nevado del Ruiz and four other
volcanoes in Tolima and Caldas departments. “We are prepared so that this does not happen
The Manizales observatory is in the nondescript former home of a diplomat. It is
situated in Chipre, a neighborhood on a hilltop just past the Manizales theater, a local
landmark in the famously artistic college town. Yet, walk up three floors of creaky wooden
stairs and you will find one of the most modern seismic control rooms in Latin America. More
than a dozen flat-panel screens display real-time data from 158 remote stations on nearby
volcanoes. Wind speed and direction, gas emissions, river water levels, thermal activity and
seismic movements monitored 24 hours a day indicate when a volcanic eruption is starting.
From the patio, below an abundance of antennas, is a view of the city of Manizales and, when
not shrouded in clouds, the ridge of volcanoes towering behind it.
30 Years Strong
Lieutenant Colonel Adilson Bueno has witnessed the danger of Colombia’s volcanos
from a helicopter. For seven years, he flew risky volcano-observation missions with
geologists to photograph the craters, measure gases and even thermal activity while hovering
150 meters over a crater. Sometimes winds of 40 knots would blow his powerful Hughes MD 530
off course. Other times, downdraft near sharp rock cliffs or the volcano itself would cause
momentary fear in even the highly skilled flight crew as members fought to control the
aircraft. All the while, Lt. Col. Bueno, his co-pilot and two geologists would breathe from
oxygen masks as they flew through columns of toxic gases.
“For this new operation, we had to gain the knowledge and establish and strengthen
a very special training for this group of pilots,” Lt. Col. Bueno said of the pilots under
his command at Colombia’s CACOM 4 Air Force base in Melgar. “These are things that you
[must] know. ... You already have to have the capability and the training to look at a
mountain, try to locate the wind and say, ‘This is going to happen to me here.’ ”
Lt. Col. Bueno said the Volcano Observation program has evolved from studying the
volcanoes to monitoring and disaster prevention. Its success is measured in lives saved and
disasters averted through careful and regular planning and coordination, such as when a
volcanic eruption prompted an avalanche in Huila department in 1994. “This allowed us to
save lives and be much more efficient in attending the injured and sick caused by the
natural disaster,” he said.
Gloria Patricia Cortes, director of the Manizales observatory, attests to the role
of the Armed Forces. “During all these years, the Colombian Air Force has had the most
integral role in the three observatories, monitoring and observing the surface activities of
the volcanoes,” she said. The relationship goes beyond the Air Force, she explained, which
helps with observation and disaster relief, to include the Army, police, fire rescue and
local government. The Army, through its Disaster Attention Battalion, also coordinates
contingency and security plans.
A Region Reacts
Nations along the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire — the plate in the basin of the
Pacific Ocean where much volcanic activity occurs — gave serious attention to volcano
monitoring and disaster prevention programs after the Armero Tragedy. The results have been
highly detailed risk maps and education programs, linking civil and military authorities to
“Ecuador has taken notice that it is a country at risk of volcanic eruptions,” said
Lieutenant General Jorge Peña Cobeña, chief of the Joint Command of the Ecuadorean Armed
Forces. He said the Armed Forces are working together with the Secretary of National Risk
Management to inform populations about their vulnerability and escape routes. “It is no
longer a reactionary mindset when it comes to disasters — it is a mindset of forecasting.”
Lieutenant General Hernán Mardones, chief of the Joint Staff of Chile, said his
country has increased its volcano monitoring systems for greater advance warning of an
imminent eruption. In a joint effort between the Naval Hydrographic and Oceanographic
Service and the Military Geographic Institute, risk maps will be created by 2015 for every
small locality within a volcano or tsunami risk area.
The people of Río Claro and other vulnerable communities may not see or hear the
volcano in their midst. But, from his safe perch Juan García insists the locals know its
danger and how to protect themselves, thanks to the coordination between civil and military
institutions that has grown since Armero.
“The people know about evacuation and that there is danger,” García said. “When the
alert sounds, they have to follow it.”
1-5 kilometers falling pyroclastic material
6-10 kilometers pyroclastic flows and rivers
10 kilometers lava flows
25 kilometers broken windows and doors, falling rock
80 kilometers lahars (mudflows)
1,500-plus kilometers falling ash
Volcano risk is determined by an equation of threat and vulnerability. Geographic
and meteorological factors are entered into the design of each volcano’s risk map. The risk
and range of vulnerability are outlined below.
Source: Manizales Volcanic and Seismic Observatory