Living in danger's path - In the valley beneath Mount Rainier

EIJIRO 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 get out.

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 any money."

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," she said.

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 all.

"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 city.

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 (D-Eatonville).

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 Mount Rainier.

"That has died on the vine," he said, "because of homeland security issues."

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 to do.

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: 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 emergency sirens.

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 hazard area.

•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

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