Living in danger's path - In the valley beneath Mount Rainier
KAWADA; The Tacoma News Tribune
June 20, 2004
Around 10 p.m. on a warm summer night in 2001, Orting Mayor Sam Colorossi
faced a decision as he stood with firefighters in front of City Hall.
A maintenance worker at Mount Rainier National Park had reported
a mudflow, or lahar, about an hour earlier. Nobody knew how big.
Colorossi wondered whether he should activate sirens and evacuate
his city of nearly 4,000 people. Firefighters were ready to push the
button, but it was too dark to see what was happening on the mountain.
So the mayor waited.
"There was no clear-cut information that it was coming to the
valley," Colorossi, now retired, recalled recently.
Around the same time, James Gregory, then fire chief of Elbe-Ashford
Fire District No. 23, was listening to "the rocks rumbling down"
as he stood on a bridge over the Nisqually River near Mount Rainier.
Gregory had received the same information as Colorossi. He sent his
volunteer firefighters to knock on residents' doors, urging them to
The flow turned out to be a glacial outburst that stayed inside park
boundaries and didn't threaten people's lives.
Call it a false alarm or a wake-up call, but if the event of Aug.
14, 2001, were to happen today, the region is definitely better prepared.
Emergency agencies have established automated warning systems, and
weather radios in the Elbe-Ashford area will alert people of movement
on the mountain.
But those positive steps haven't erased a nightmare scenario of a
massive mudslide wiping out thousands of lives and destroying millions
of dollars of property in the valleys.
Among the improvements and remaining gaps in the region's lahar readiness:
•Sirens: Puyallup River valley communities are equipped with 17 warning
sirens, which drills have proved are mostly effective for people who
are outdoors and not far from the horns. Tests have repeatedly shown
that many people inside buildings don't hear them.
•Weather radios: Emergency officials say this should be the first
line of defense for everybody, and residents in the Elbe-Ashford area
got them for free. But a vast majority of residents in the Puyallup
River Valley are still without them.
•Evacuation drills: Children in Orting, Puyallup, Sumner and Fife
are becoming more adept at evacuating their schools, but the larger
question remains: Can nearly 13,000 students in these four districts
get off the valley floor in time?
•Bridge for Kids: Officials spent $250,000 for a study that documented
how to provide safe passage to high ground for 2,000 children in Orting.
But the $12.7 million needed to carve a tunnel under Highway 162 and
build a bridge over the Carbon River is nowhere to be found.
•Evacuation signs: Pierce County has installed about 220 signs, but
residents have complained that they're confusing, and the county has
never fully tested them.
After years of research and studies, emergency officials know they
could do more to prepare the region for a worst-case scenario.
Steve Bailey, director of Pierce County Emergency Management, blames
the remote nature of a lahar for the declining interest.
In May 2001, nearly 100 community leaders, police officers, firefighters
and government officials from across Pierce County gathered in Virginia's
Blue Ridge Mountains under the guidance of the Federal Emergency Management
Agency for the largest eruption exercise ever staged in the United
States. The result was grim - up to 5,000 people dead in the lahar
simulation - but at least it captured widespread attention.
These days the state and federal authorities who control the purse
strings are preoccupied with homeland security.
"It's a disaster of low probability, high consequence,"
Bailey said of a lahar. "Unless you learn from Afghanistan that
they plan to drop a bomb on Mount Rainier, we are not going to get
In the meantime, new houses keep popping up on the valley floor, already
teeming with roughly 59,000 residents. More than 5,000 new homes are
in planning stages to be built in the path of a lahar.
Safer, but not perfect
On the night of Aug. 14, 2001, Bailey was in Colorossi's shoes. And
like the Orting mayor, Bailey exercised restraint during what scientists
now refer to as the Kautz-Van Trump debris flow.
Bailey was at the county's Emergency Operations Center in the basement
of the County-City Building in Tacoma, gathering reports from sheriff's
deputies and firefighters near the site of the flow.
"The questions that I kept asking were: What do I know? What
do I not know?" Bailey said.
He refrained from declaring an emergency, which would have triggered
a series of responses by several East Pierce County agencies.
In fact, more than 30 minutes earlier, Rich Lechleitner, the park
maintenance worker who first spotted the debris flow, had confirmed
with the park's communication center that there was nothing of urgency.
But what if Colorossi and Bailey were wrong? What if a 30-foot-tall
slushy-cement wall - the size of lahar scientists think mostly likely
will be released on this side of the mountain - was actually sweeping
down into the Orting valley?
"The history of volcano warnings is replete with human error,"
said Kevin Scott, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's
Cascades Volcano Observatory. "And people died."
In the early 1990s, the process to reduce or eliminate human guesswork
already had started in Pierce County. With a $225,000 federal grant,
the county and the USGS office in Vancouver began studying and installing
an electronic monitoring system on the headwaters of the Puyallup
and Carbon rivers.
Agencies also began installing warning sirens in six valley communities.
The ones in Orting could be activated automatically after agencies
confirmed signs of a lahar picked up by the electronic monitors.
"I think (the siren system) gives us a little more confidence,"
said Bonnie Walkup, a longtime Orting resident.
On the night of the debris flow three years ago, Walkup and her husband
gathered the animals on their six-acre farm and got ready to evacuate,
though they never did.
"Hopefully the siren system works like it's supposed to,"
But Bailey admits: "Nothing is perfect."
Sirens aren't a safe bet
In October 2001, emergency officials tested the warning system for
the first time. Many people inside buildings didn't hear the sirens
- a result that's been repeated in subsequent tests.
In the most recent drill, only one siren - at McAlder Elementary School
in the Sumner School District - didn't wail as designed. Sixteen other
horns echoed loudly through the valley, with the ones in Orting going
off just two minutes after an imaginary lahar was detected.
But many people still didn't hear them. Sumner Fire Chief Steve Stringfellow
said the city's siren at Sumner High School isn't audible even inside
classrooms on the same campus.
In previous tests, several sirens around the valley didn't work at
"The problem is that the sirens are old; they are from the 1950s
civil defense," Bailey said.
The state and local governments are looking into new models, which
cost about $40,000 apiece. They can be heard at full strength 9,000
feet away. They also broadcast a voice, which can deliver specific
instructions and be heard 4,000 feet away.
Orting already has one of these models, installed at state expense.
The Puyallup Fair plans to put one on its fairgrounds.
But county emergency officials are no longer convinced sirens are
the way to go.
"Initially, we thought the sirens would be pretty effective given
the geography of the valley," Bailey said.
The alternative: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Weather Radio, which receives Emergency Alert Signals from the National
Weather Service. The same system is used for tsunamis on the Pacific
coast and tornadoes in the Midwest.
"This is the silver bullet that we emergency agencies have been
looking for," Bailey said in a recent dedication ceremony of
new radio towers. "We are beginning to back away from other attempts
and put all of our efforts into this system."
Protecting the public
Most Elbe-Ashford area residents are equipped with weather radios,
thanks to an anonymous donation that bought 900 of them.
Patti Andres, owner of The Highlander restaurant, is among about 400
residents who have picked up the radios so far.
"It makes me feel better considering what happened on Mount St.
Helens," she said.
Her business and house are a good distance from the Nisqually River,
but right in front of the restaurant is a deposit of the last major
mudflow in the area, known as the National Lahar. She also remembers
people driving to Eatonville during the panic of the 2001 debris flow.
Emergency officials now recommend that residents buy weather radios
regardless of where they live. But a vast majority of residents in
the lahar pathway still don't have them.
They cost anywhere from $25 to $70. Cheaper ones receive all alert
signals, meaning Pierce County residents would receive signals for
emergencies elsewhere in the state. More expensive ones can be programmed
to receive signals only for county emergencies.
The National Weather Service office in Seattle has held a promotional
campaign every September for the last five years. The goal is to make
the radios as common in homes as smoke detectors.
"Five years ago, we estimated about 5 percent of the population
in Washington had them," said Ted Buehner, warning coordination
meteorologist. "Now, we think 10 percent have them.
"We've got a long way to go."
Shortly before the Orting School District held its evacuation drill
in 2002, an automobile accident blocked Highway 162 just outside the
If there had been a lahar, the blockage would have trapped people
inside Orting as they tried to drive north on the highway - the evacuation
route for 1,500 primary, middle and high school students.
"We are playing the cards that we've been dealt here," Superintendent
Jeff Davis said at the time.
Since then, officials have formed a consensus that the quickest way
out of Orting is by walking, although the lack of a foot route across
Highway 162 and the Carbon River keeps children at three schools in
cars for now.
During the latest drill last month, Ptarmigan Ridge Intermediate School
students showed they can walk to high ground within 40 minutes, the
time scientists think Orting residents would have to evacuate.
To improve that time and provide the same chances for the three other
schools in Orting, a grass-roots organization called Bridge for Kids
began campaigning in 2001 for a footbridge over the river.
Orting's high, middle and primary schools are now trapped on a virtual
island between the river and Highway 162.
The bridge concept caught the Legislature's attention, and lawmakers
allocated $250,000 last year to commission a feasibility study. It
found that a tunnel and footbridge would save Orting children's lives,
though it's unlikely to rescue everyone in town. The bridge and tunnel
are proposed in the northern part of Orting near the schools, where
most of the recent growth is happening. The majority of residents
still live on the south end.
The price tag for the bridge and tunnel: $12.7 million.
A push for the money didn't gain interest in Olympia during the last
session because it was not a budget year, said Sen. Marilyn Rasmussen
She unsuccessfully tried to go after state money available for emergencies.
Next year, when the capital budget is back on the table, things will
be different, Rasmussen predicts.
"There's no question that the next session is the one that we'll
be able to get the work done," she said.
Competing against terrorism
Rasmussen's optimism might be borne out by the increased federal emergency
money flowing to states since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
How the money can be used is another story.
"There are significant strings attached," said adjutant
Gen. Timothy Lowenberg, the head of Washington National Guard who
oversees the state's emergency operations.
For instance, the state can't use that money to build a dam on the
Puyallup River in anticipation of a mudflow.
"And we are addressing broader issues (since terrorist attacks)
with the same staffing," Lowenberg said.
Scott, the USGS hydrologist, said government officials are overwhelmed
with demands to protect the Northwest from terrorism, and the concern
for volcanic hazards "is passing from the front burners of memory."
For instance, Scott said there used to be quarterly meetings that
included scientists and officials from the Army Corps of Engineers,
Pierce County, Orting and Sumner to talk about the lahar danger from
"That has died on the vine," he said, "because of homeland
Figuring out what to do
Emergency officials aren't sure how the general public would react
during a real lahar.
As one way to prepare them, the county spent $7,500 and erected about
220 evacuation signs across the area. Their purpose is twofold: give
clear information about escape routes and raise awareness of the danger.
Some residents have followed the signs to see where they lead, then
complained to the county after getting lost. Some signs, for instance,
point to a hill behind a guardrail, leaving drivers guessing what
Bailey said signs like these are supposed to give directions for foot
evacuations. He said the county has added information in some cases
to prevent this kind of confusion.
What about conducting an evacuation exercise for the general public,
so that schoolchildren aren't the only ones well-trained at escaping
from a lahar? Bailey said such a drill would be too big and unwieldy.
"You'll have people get hurt," he said. "I'm not ready
to take that risk."
Staff writer Rob Tucker contributed to this report.
Eijiro Kawada: 253-597-8633
SIDEBAR: How to get a weather radio
• For a list of manufacturers and distributors of weather radios that
broadcast lahar warnings, visit the state Emergency Management Web
site: emd.wa.gov/5-prep/trng/pubed/weather/ wheretogetwxradios.htm.
SIDEBAR: Four tips to protect yourself
Public warning of a massive volcanic mudflow could come too late
for some people living in river valleys around Mount Rainier. Many
homes in the valley have received free weather radios that broadcast
warnings, but you shouldn't count only on hearing the radio or the
Here are some other things you can do:
•Recognize you are in a danger area. Become knowledgeable about volcanic
hazards and determine if you live, work or go to school in a volcanic
•Know where high ground is and the quickest way to get there.
•Develop a plan on where to go and how to communicate with family.
•Recognize that volcanic activity on Mount Rainier, however minor,
raises the likelihood of a destructive lahar. Even minor volcanic
activity could suddenly melt snow and ice and trigger a lahar.
SOURCE: U.S. Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory
Part 1. Go to Part 2.