The 1985 Nevado del Ruiz volcano catastrophe: anatomy and retrospection
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Abstract:

AbstractThis paper seeks to analyze in an objective way the circumstances and events that contributed to the 1985 Nevado del Ruiz catastrophe, in order to provide useful guidelines for future emergencies. The paper is organized into two principal parts. In the first part, an Anatomy of the catastrophe is developed as a step-by-step chronicle of events and actions taken by individuals and organizations during the period November 1984 through November 1985. This chronicle provides the essential background for the crucial events of November 13. This year-long period is broken down further to emphasize essential chapters: the gradual awareness of the awakening of the volcano; a long period of institutional skepticism reflecting an absence of credibility; the closure of the credibility gap with the September 11 phreatic eruption, followed by an intensive effort to gird for the worst; and a detailed account of the day of reckoning. The second part of the paper, Retrospection, examines the numerous complicated factors that influenced the catastrophic outcome, and attempts to cull a few “lessons from Armero” in order to avoid similar occurrences in the future.In a nutshell, the government on the whole acted responsibly but was not willing to bear the economic or political costs of early evacuation or a false alarm. Science accurately foresaw the hazards but was insufficiently precise to render reliable warning of the crucial event at the last possible minute. Catastrophe was therefore a calculated risk, and this combination — the limitations of predication/detection, the refusal to bear a false alarm and the lack of will to act on the uncertain information available — provided its immediate and most obvious causes. But because the crucial event occurred just two days before the Armero emergency-management plan was to be critically examined and improved, the numerous circumstances which delayed progress of emergency management over the previous year also may be said to have contributed to the outcome. Thus the catastrophe was not caused by technological ineffectiveness or detectiveness, nor by an overwhelming eruption, or by an improbable run of bad luck, but rather by cumulative human error — by misjudgment, indecision and bureaucratic shortsightedness. Armero could have produces no victims, and therein dwells its immense tragedy.

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