Sunday, November 14, 2010

The People of Armero, 25 Years Later

It’s been 25 years since Nevado del Ruiz erupted on November 13, 1985. Despite being a relatively small eruption (VEI 3), this phreatic (magma + water) created a massive lahar (mudslide) and managed to wipe out an entire town, killing 23,000 people in the process. Good descriptions of the eruption can be found on History of Geology and Eruptions, so I’m not going to reinvent that wheel.
From the USGS
Last spring, I researched Armero in the present day for a cultural project in Spanish class. The assignment was to communicate with a native Spanish speaker in Spanish, so I sent a (painstakingly composed) email to  Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Manizales, one of the volcano observatories set up after the 1985 tragedy.
Now, it has been 25 years since Nevado del Ruiz erupted, and, in the aftermath of eruptions, frequently people return to the destroyed area. There could be a variety of reasons for this – they don’t think it’s likely to erupt again, they have nowhere else to go, for religious reasons, or they simply want to be “home.” A great example of this is Merapi, in Indonesia, which seems to erupt roughly every ten years, and its lahar deposits re-liquify into new lahars every monsoon season. That people still live nearby to be affected by the current eruption is a horrific testament to misplaced perseverance, determination, and religious conviction. After the 2002 eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo, in Congo, people moved back to the destroyed town of Goma before the lava had even finished cooling. However, habitation in an area previously destroyed by recorded natural disasters isn’t relegated to what we would consider “third-world” countries: people still live in New Orleans and near Mt. St. Helens, astonishingly enough. As time passes after an eruption, people are increasingly more willing to return to these areas – the valleys surrounding Mt. Rainier are filled chock-a-block with farms, industrial complexes, and towns.
From here
In light of that, my curiosity about Armero was regarding where in that process the government and people were – had they begun to forget, or did the scale of the tragedy make it more difficult to ignore the hazard? Had I known more vocabulary, I might have asked more specific questions, but the ones I managed to include were thus: what is the town of Armero like today? How many people have returned to live there, and how do they perceive Nevado del Ruiz?
I got a fantastic response back from the volcano observatory, which, after some I looked up several words, answered most of my questions. The representative explained how the old site of Armero had been declared a National Cemetery, and habitation was no longer permitted there. Now, the survivors and municipal administrators had moved to the town of Guayabal, now called Guayabal-Armero. Apparently the area has become a destination for over 35,000 tourists a year, and there are volunteers available to provide tourist guidance.
From the USGS
That led to some more focused googling, with the result that I found out about the Fundacion Armando Armero, an organization devoted to preserving the cultural heritage of Armero. They’ve set up an interpretive site in the old town, focusing on people and places found in Armero before the eruption. In addition, they are working on building a cultural-tourism route through Guayabal-Armero and Armero. One of their other projects includes collecting photos and stories of old life in Armero, some of which are available on their website.
From Wikipedia
It was interesting to learn a little more about how this area is recovering from such a devastating incident. It sounds like the government has more respect for volcanoes, that the people are coping, and the efforts of the Fundacion Armando Armero are laudable. Still, I wonder whether the cooperation of the people will last, or whether they will someday decide to reclaim their town.

Other Resources:
Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Manizales
 USGS: Nevado del Ruiz
Global Volcanism Program: Nevado del Ruiz
No Apparent Danger, Victoria Bruce, HarperCollins Publishers, 1st Ed., 2001

1 comment:

Gaelyn said...

A very interesting project. How quickly we forget about volcanoes. Glad the gov realized the potential dangers.