Good afternoon! This post is the second of a trilogy of entries inspired by my recent visit to Colombia. In this piece, I reflect on my visit to the town of Armero, a site well-known to volcanologists worldwide for the tragedy that befell it in 1985.
In the picturesque town of Honda, elegant bridges span the meeting place of multiple rivers. Cotton flowers spray unchecked from cracks in the dilapidated sidewalks, and sleepy faces peer out from the shuttered windows of houses as vital and colourful as the blossoming trees between them. Strolling through the charming cobbled streets, one can see tidy round signs illustrating a snow-capped mountain on a green background. A neat script below reads “Ruta de Evacuación”. The day is cloudless.
Despite the peace that permeates it, Honda lies in an area at high risk of damage from lahars (volcanic mudflows) from the snowy volcano illustrated on those green signs. Nevado del Ruiz is an active stratovolcano in the state of Tolima. On November 13th, 1985, lahars created by an eruption of Ruiz descended various ravines and destroyed the town of Armero. This event had the fourth-highest death toll of all recorded catastrophic eruptions (Wiki here) and Colombia’s worst natural-hazard-related disaster. The tragedy is remembered not only for its size but for the perceived failings of the government to protect residents vulnerable to volcanic hazard, despite receiving multiple warnings of elevated activity earlier in the year.
How can mud kill so many? For those unfamiliar, this is what a lahar looks like, and how it can move. Nevado del Ruiz’s eruption created hot pyroclastic flows that melted the ice covering the upper slopes of the volcano, and this mix of volcanic material and ice created lahars. The lahars flowed down valleys, accelerating until they reached the plain where Armero lay (see 04:00 of the video below).
The tragedy provoked widespread criticism of the Colombian government: many voices stated that this was a foreseeable disaster. Locals appeared unaware of Ruiz’s eruptive history and the risk it posed them. Furthermore, the government had received information that activity at Ruiz had been elevated months before November 13th. Hazard maps were available but poorly distributed. On the day of the eruption, several evacuation attempts were made, but communication was hampered by storms. A 13-year-old girl, Omayra Sánchez, was trapped under the ruins of her house in Armero and her last agonizing hours were documented and published around the world: she is still an icon of the eruption, its devastating impacts, and the ill-fated rescue efforts.
In response to the eruption, both the monitoring and risk mitigation capabilities of Colombia underwent severe examination and change. In 2019, they exist as the Servicio Geológico Colombiano (Colombian Geological Service) and the Unidad Nacional para la Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres (National Unit for Disaster Risk Management).
Armero has been preserved as a ghost town, and we spent several hours visiting abandoned houses and the grave of Omayra. The lahar deposits were so thick in some places that we drove level with the first floor of the hospital. Like in Honda, nature has taken over, but here the peace was of a deeper, stiller nature. We saw “The English House”, a particularly opulent building now dominated by the curling roots of a ficus tree. When volcanic hazards are sufficiently large, wealth offers little protection.
I found it impossible not to draw comparisons between Armero and Nevado del Ruíz in 1985, and the destruction of San Miguel Los Lotes by Volcán de Fuego in 2018. The two tragedies have several things in common, conditions that in hindsight seem remarkable at two volcanoes that have historically been so active. As with Ruíz, fortune at Fuego played a role: the eruption happened on a Sunday, when people were at rest; Fuego’s seismometer network was offline, and bad weather prevented people from seeing the eruption developing. Still, it is difficult to feel that in the 33 years since Ruíz, we are dealing with similar issues: poor hazard map distribution among communities in major risk zones; major breakdowns in communication between locals and institutions; under-acknowledgement of the root social and economic causes of volcanic risk; a paucity of resources for monitoring institutions. The institutions of SGC and UNGRD in Colombia have risen from the ashes to create an admirable network of scientists, managers, and communicators who manage risk collaboratively with locals. I hope that we will see at Fuego a similar valuable change in inter-community collaboration. And Armero, as raw and as visceral as a visit there is, is essential in keeping alive the memories of previous losses and how we may learn from them.
The most recent volcanic hazard map for Nevado del Ruiz, produced by SGC, can be found here; Honda is in the top right. In my next post, the final of this trilogy, I talk about meeting members of SGC and UNGRD and learning about their current projects!