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What was an emergency manager doing at a scientific conference? — Volcano Watch

1:52 AM · Mar 15, 2024

On the Island of Hawaiʻi, frequent eruptions foster a close relationship between the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) and the Hawaiʻi County Civil Defense Agency (HCCDA). HVO monitors the active volcanoes and their associated hazards; HCCDA alerts and protects communities from impacts of volcanic events. This relationship, between volcano observatories and their emergency managers, was highlighted at the recent “Cities on Volcanoes” meeting in Antigua, Guatemala. The COV meeting is held every other year, and it brings scientists from around the world together to share information on the latest eruptive activity and how communities have been impacted, and to present studies on the effects of volcanism. This year, with financial support from the USGS Volcano Science Center, I attended the twelfth COV meeting in Antigua because one of the conference’s four themes, “From volcano monitoring and hazard assessment to risk management,” had a strong emergency management focus. In Hawaiʻi, HVO monitors the active volcanoes, determines what hazards we can expect during unrest, and tracks eruptions. HVO is also responsible for setting the volcano alert levels and aviation color codes in Hawaii and American Samoa, using the USGS Volcano Alert Level System for Volcanoes. In this capacity, HVO notifies federal, state, and local emergency management agencies, as well as the residents and visitors, of notable volcanic unrest and eruptive activity. HCCDA is then responsible for disseminating alerts about volcanic activity (and other natural or man-made hazards) via our public information and warning system. HCCDA is also responsible for making emergency management decisions, such as road closures or evacuations, if communities or infrastructure are being threatened by volcanic activity. Over the five-day COV meeting in Antigua, the reason HVO wanted HCCDA to attend became very apparent. The relationship between HCCDA and HVO exists beyond volcanic unrest; we talk to and share information with each other even when Hawaii’s volcanoes are at alert-level normal. What makes our relationship unique is that HCCDA can ask the scientists at HVO questions about the current situation, and they are willing to have a candid conversation about the unrest or eruption. Through these conversations, HCCDA is then able to determine and convey the magnitude (dire versus non-threatening) of the current situation to the public. Hawaii is fortunate to have such a close relationship between scientists and emergency managers. In some countries, the collaboration between these two groups appears strained. From the outside, it appears that part of the conflict between volcano observatory scientists and emergency managers is the result of their roles not being clearly defined. In other places in the world, the responsibilities for setting volcano alert levels and for providing public information and warning appear to be not clearly assigned, or if assigned, not understood by one or more of the organizations involved in the response. This has led to confusion in the public on how serious the threat is and on what actions they need to take. For example, on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, many residents were evacuated in the 1990s from the most threatened area many months before any impacts from eruptions happened. Some individuals who had evacuated returned to their homes because of the lack of impacts, only to perish during the most devasting pyroclastic flow months later. While many factors contributed, in retrospect it appears clearer messaging and communication may have saved more lives. A similar situation occurred in Guatemala in 2018 where the volcano observatory communicated their observations to emergency managers, but some believe that the magnitude of the eruption and its potential hazards was under appreciated, which resulted in a community not being adequately warned to evacuate. A pyroclastic density current destroyed the community and hundreds of residents perished. The focus of the COV meeting was on improving all aspects of monitoring, evaluating, and communicating volcanic activity. It’s clear that emergency managers and volcano observatories need to work closely together so that emergency managers can get the volcano hazards information that we need to fulfill our obligations to protect life and property during a volcanic event. Emergency managers at HCCDA and scientists at HVO share the same passion for their work, and we will continue working closely together in the future, as new volcanic activity occurs on the Island of Hawaiʻi. ---- Image and caption from USGS: Barry Periatt (left panelist), Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency, participating in panel discussion, "Lessons from recent eruptions and other crises," at the Cities on Volcanoes 12 conference in Antigua, Guatemala. Fellow panelists (left to right) were Jake Lowenstern (USGS/USAID Volcano Disaster Assistance Program), Stavros Meletlidis (Instituto Geográfico Nacional, Spain), Gustavo Chigna (Instituto Nacional de Sismología, Vulcanologia, Meteorologia e Hidrología, Guatemala), and Lina Dorado (Colombia Red Cross). USGS photo. ---- Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates. Today's article was written by Barry Periatt, an Administrative Officer with the County of Hawaiʻi Civil Defense Agency.