Natural disasters tend to have a profoundly destructive impact on the communities that happen to be situated close enough to the epicenter. Should the unfavorable natural conditions coincide with the cumulative human error, the toll on resources and human lives alike may become very high. Economy, culture, and education in the affected communities may suffer grave consequences if the natural disaster hits them. However, such cases also allow drawing conclusions from the negative experiences and considering them for the urban planners and early warning systems alike. This was exactly the case with the catastrophic eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia that is now studied as a seminal event in modern volcanology (Augliere, 2016). The eruption provoked pyroclastic flows and lahars that destroyed a prospering community of Armero nearby and caused more than 20,000 casualties. Although the town has never been rebuilt, its tragic fate is a lesson in the necessity of learning geological history and improving early warning systems to avoid similar outcomes in the future.
Armero Community in 1985
As of 1985, when the Nevado del Ruiz erupted, Armero was a prospering community in Tolima, one of the 32 departments of Colombia located in the central part of the country. While not a large town by any account, it was still a seat of the eponymous administrative unit and had as many as 29,000 residents (Augliere, 2016). In economic terms, it was a place of “considerable… economic value” and a center of agricultural production responsible for a significant share of Columbian rice, sorghum, coffee, and sugar (Voight, 1990, p. 380). One of the reasons for this agricultural prosperity was Nevado del Ruiz volcano situated 45 km from the town, as the repeated volcanic eruptions had created a highly fertile mineralized soil (US Geological Survey [USGS], n.d.). Culturally, the town was predominantly populated by the Spanish-speaking white and mestizo Colombians. In terms of education, the community also fared reasonably well, as many of the 50 schools destroyed by the eruption were situated in Armero (Augliere, 2016). To summarize, Armero of 1985 was, by all accounts, a thriving agricultural community with fairly bright economic, cultural, and educational prospects.
Geological Profile of the Catastrophe
Before delving into details of the eruption of 1985, it is necessary to briefly describe the sequence of geological events that led to the catastrophe. Nevado del Ruiz is a cone-shaped stratovolcano “built from successive layers of lava, ash, and pyroclastic-flow deposits” (“Nevado del Ruiz Volcano,” 2010). It is fed by the magma generated on the boundary between the overriding South American tectonic plate and subducting Nazca plate (“Nevado del Ruiz Volcano,” 2010). Nevado del Ruiz is a glaciated volcano, meaning that the high temperatures of the eruption provoke the expansive melting of the nearby ice (“Global Volcanism Program,” 2020). As a result, whenever Nevado del Ruiz erupts, it produces lahars – large flows of liquid mud and pyroclasts, such as solidified magma from previous eruptions and fragmented lithics (Gómez-Arango et al., 2018). Significant earthquakes in 1984 and early 1985 led to the formation of a new crater in Nevado del Ruiz (Voight, 1990). Since that moment, the volcanic activity has been steadily rising, and a phreatic eruption occurred on September 11, 1985 (Voight, 1990). The volcano remained active, and the next major eruption came two months later.
Impact on the Community
Following almost a year of precursory activity, Nevado del Ruiz erupted on November 13, 1985. Lahars resulting from the 20-minute magmatic eruption affected several communities, such as the nearby town of Chinchiná, where approximately 1,000 people lost their lives, and 200 houses were destroyed (Augliere, 2016). However, it was Armero that bore the brunt of the catastrophe and suffered the vast majority of the casualties associated with it. Out of the 23,000 victims of the eruption and following lahars, more than 20,000 lived in Armero, meaning that the once vibrant town has lost more than two-thirds of its population (“How volcanoes work,” n.d.). Additionally, more than 7,000 people became homeless in the wake of the catastrophe (Augliere, 2016). The immediate economic impact was also severe: the regions had “lost 60 percent of its livestock, 30 percent of grain and rice crops, and half a million bags of coffee” (Augliere, 2016). Overall, the losses associated with the eruption amounted to $1,000,000,000, or approximately one-fifth of Colombia’s GNP at the time (“How volcanoes work,” n.d.). Thus, the immediate adverse impact on the Armero community was significant in economic, cultural, and educational terms alike.
The long-term impact proved to be just as catastrophic, as the community never recovered from the lahars that engulfed it. The town was inundated completely, and no attempt has been made to restore or rebuild it (“Nevado del Ruiz Volcano,” 2010). Most of the survivors evacuated to the neighboring towns and villages, but the community of Armero was utterly destroyed. The seat of the Armero administrative unit within the Tolima department was relocated, and the former town of Armero remains unpopulated ever since. Hence, the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz is an example of a natural catastrophe that did not merely affect a given community’s economic, cultural, and educational conditions but wiped the entire community off the map.
Lessons for City Planners
One lesson the city planners can learn from the events of 1985 in Armero is the importance of considering geological history when planning a settlement. Nevado del Ruiz has a long history of volcanic activity and successive eruptions that lead to highly destructive lahars. There are historical records of the eruption in 1595, with the mudflows sweeping across the valleys of the Guali River and the Lagunilla River, resulting in a death toll of 636 (“How volcanoes work,” n.d.). Another eruption occurred in 1845, once again causing catastrophic lahars and resulting in hundreds of people dead and significant property damage (Voight, 1990). As a 19th-century observer noted, “It is astonishing that none of the inhabitants of these villages, built on the solidified mud of old mass movements, has even suspected [its] origin” (Voight, 1990, p. 350). This astonishment applies fully to Armero of 1985, as the town was built directly above the mudflows of the previous eruptions (Voight, 1990). An assessment of the geological history of the region could have alerted urban planners to the fact that the town’s position was highly vulnerable in the case of an eruption.
Another lesson to be learned from the events of 1895 is the importance of stable infrastructure as a prerequisite for effective early warning systems. The national government of Columbia, as well as the regional administrations, have been well aware of the possibility of the eruption for the better part of 1985 (Voight, 1990). After the eruption of November 13 was indicated, two hours had passed before the first lahar reached the outskirts of Armero, but this window of opportunity was squandered. It was, in no small part, the result of the faulty infrastructure: the towns nearest to the volcano lost their power soon after the eruption and, therefore, could not receive the warning in time (Augliere, 2016). The local radio station also went off the air son after the eruption, thus leaving the people of Armero unwarned and unprepared for the catastrophe. One may agree with Voight (1990) that the main reason behind the tragic outcome was “cumulative human error” (p. 383). One of the facets of this error that has to be considered by urban planners is the importance of infrastructure, allowing swift and effective information exchange.
As one can see, the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in 1985 was a natural catastrophe that had a profound negative impact on the community of Armero in Tolima, Columbia. Before the eruption, the town of Armero was a thriving agricultural community that fared well in economic, cultural, and educational terms. However, after a series of earthquakes in 1984-1985 provoked increased volcanic activity and led to the formation of a new crater, Nevado del Ruiz erupted in November after a prolonged period of precursory activity. The immediate results were catastrophic for Armero: the town lost more than 20,000 of its 29,000 residents, and the total costs of the disaster amounted to $1,000,000,000. The long-term effects proved to be severe a well: the community was wiped off the map entirely and never recovered. The 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz provides valuable lessons for city planners, such as the utmost importance of knowing the regional geological and the necessity for stable infrastructure for providing effective communication.
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