Preparing for every disaster

Sunday’s 34th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens marks a turning point. Washington’s median age is 37.3, with a majority of residents having no discernible memory of the nuke-sized blast that decapitated a mountain and killed 57 people.

In the 1970s, elementary students read their Weekly Reader to learn about a volcano in Washington that could erupt at any time: It was Mount Baker. And for residents of Darrington, emergency preparedness centered on floods, a megaquake or lahars from the nearby volcano of Glacier Peak.

The March 22 Oso mudslide is a paradigm shift. A different kind of disaster with different triggers and different methods of detection.

As The Herald’s Noah Haglund reports, three members of Washington’s congressional delegation sent a letter Thursday to House Appropriations Committee honchos to triple the budget for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Landslide Hazards Program. Democratic Reps. Rick Larsen, Suzan DelBene and Jim McDermott also urged a boost to the Light Distance and Ranging (LIDAR) technology administered by the USGS.

“Experts from around the country agree that it’s the best available technology to map landslide hazards,” DelBene said.

LIDAR mapping will increase the county’s available tools for gauging landslide risk, which currently focuses on slopes and educated guesswork. It’s a priority of Snohomish County Council Chairman, Dave Somers.

“It would be a great benefit to us,” Somers said.

The budget request, particularly for LIDAR, is timely and merited. But lawmakers also need to prioritize funding based on risk levels. The members wrote about the landslide hazards program, that “unfortunately, this program receives far less funding than other hazards programs such as volcanoes and earthquakes.” There’s a good reason for that, and it loops back to Mount St. Helens and another volcano, Mt. Rainier. A Kobe-style earthquake or the eruption of a Western Washington mountain is a matter of when, not if.

As The Herald’s Bill Sheets reported last year, Glacier Peak, the second most dangerous Cascade volcano, only has one seismic monitoring station.

“It is at the present time the least well-monitored of all the Cascade volcanoes,” said John Ewert, scientist-in-charge at the USGS’s Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash. The sequestration’s budget cuts were to blame. Now, additional monitoring stations need to move forward.

As disasters fade from public memory, risk management must be informed by history as well as technology.

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