The Army and National Police of El Salvador acted quickly after the explosive eruption of the Chaparrastique volcano
By Dialogo January 19, 2014
El Salvador’s Army and National Police responded quickly to help calm thousands of people who were potentially endangered by a large explosion at the Chaparrastique volcano, which released large amounts of gas and ash and caused widespread fear among the civilian population.
About 1,500 personnel from the Army, National Civil Police (PNC), Civil Protection, and Civil protection agents coordinated their efforts and launched security measures when the volcano exploded on Dec. 29, 2013, in the department of San Miguel. The security forces responded to help civilians after the volcano’s “explosive eruption,” said Armando Vividor, chief of the directorate of civil protections operations.
The volcano is known as “El Chaparrastique,” or the San Miguel volcano. The volcano is 2,129 meters high and is located 130 kilometers east of San Salvador. El Chaparrastique is one of seven active volcanoes in El Salvador.
Praise for security forces
The security forces responded in a prompt and professional manner, and reassured residents that they would be kept safe, said José Wilfredo Salgado García, the mayor of San Miguel.
“The response of the police and Army soldiers was efficient and exemplary. People are grateful to them for their immediacy and because they helped maintain calm and order,” José Wilfredo Salgado García, Mayor of San Miguel, said in an interview. The volcano last erupted in 1976.
A large explosion and a quick response
The volcano exploded around 10 a.m. on a Sunday. A column of thick smoke rose high above the volcano, distributing gases into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide and sulfur, which can be deadly if the concentrations are high enough, were among the gases the volcano expelled.
Immediately after the explosion, the authorities ordered the evacuation of the communities located within three kilometers of the volcano. This included about 300 communities, where about 2,300 people live, according to published reports. The evacuted communities included Chinameca, Jucuapa, Batres, Santa María, San Jorge, El Tránsito, Las Placitas, Usulután, Santa Elena and San Rafael.
Evacuees were directed to 16 emergency shelters in the departments of San Miguel and Usulután. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health quickly brought in water-purifying equipment to make sure the evacuees had enough water.
As a precautionary measure, authorities canelled at least 22 flights that were expected to land that night at Comalapa International Airport, according to Notimex. Airport officials were concerned that the high volume of ashes emitted by the volcano might reduce visibility for pilots.
The loud explosion interrupted what began as a calm Sunday morning and created a high level of confusión and fear.
“Apparently, the explosion of the third highest volcano in El Salvador caused considerable anxiety in the population,” Salgado García said. “At first, people did not understand what was happening. There were no victims or serious damage.”
Seismographs installed inside the volcano began to register an increase in seismic activity around 6 a.m., about four hours before the eruption, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) reported. The strongest part of the eruption ended around 1 p.m.
The volcano could erupt again
A magnetic field was involved in the eruption, the National Civil Protection System’s Scientific Technical Commission reported. The commission was created to evaluate and analyze the cause of the eruption. Environment Minister, Herman Rosa Chávez.
“That means that if there is more activity in the volcano in the near future, the most likely scenario is an eruption with a launch of incandescent rocks near the crater,” Minister of the Environment Herman Rosa Chávez warned.
Security forces respond to natural disasters
Salvadoran security forces are battling street gangs, such as Mara Salvatrucha, which is also known as MS-13 and Barrio 18, as well as transnational criminal organizations which operate in El Salvador. These organized crime groups include the Sinaloa Cartel, which is led by fugitive drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and Los Zetas.
In addition to fighting criminal groups, the National Police, and Civil Protection services have in recent years helped several regions that have been hit by natural disasters:
• In October 2011, National Police agents and Army soldiers helped the civilian population after the tropical depression “12E” dropped record levels of rain on the country. The tropical depression killed 194 people, left 81 people missing, and caused more than $ 2 billion (USD) in damages.
• In May 2010, National Police agents, Army soldiers, and Civil Protection units cooperated to protect residents in several areas that were damaged by the tropical storm “Agatha.” The storm killed 12 people, left another 12 missing, and caused $115 million (USD) in damages.
• In November 2009, security forces in 14 departments throughout the country helped evacuate and shelter tens of thousands of people impacted by the tropical storm “Ida.” The storm killed 198 people, damaged or destroyed 3.400 homes, and left 14,000 people homeless.
Loss of life and economic damages
The country recorded 123 major natural disasters from 1989 to 2009, events which killed 4,332 people, injured more than 2.7 million people, and caused nearly $4 billion (USD) in economic damages, according to a report by the Standing Committee for Risk Management, a civil society organization in El Salvador.
The bravery of police and soldiers
Many of the police agents and Army soldiers responded to the volcano eruption without wearing protective masks, putting themselves at risk of inhaling toxic elements.
“We all worry about evacuating and helping people, and we forget about our police officers and soldiers, many of whom went near the volcano without masks. They deserve recognition,” Salgado García said.
Area back to normal
Within 72 hours, most of the people who had been evacuated were safely back in their homes. “Everyone has already returned to their homes. Activities in San Miguel are going on as if nothing had happened. An eruption is not ruled out so we have to remain alert. We are preparing a helicopter with sirens to alert people so they can evacuate immediately,” Salgado García said.
Studying the eruption
Scientists from the University of El Salvador are studying the eruption and exchanging information with volcano researchers from the University of Michigan. A group of volcanologists in Italy is scheduled to travel to El Salvador in the coming months to share their knowledge and experience with Salvadoran officials, authorities said.