Could You Survive a Volcanic Eruption?

Be glad you’re not living near Mt. Vesuvius in in 79 AD. Today in 2018, if you’re anywhere near a volcano and you’re even mildly paying attention, you’ll know when to leave town. Unlike so many other disasters that might strike, being inundated by volcanic ash is not what you should worry about if you prepare. (For an interactive volcano map click here.)

The first and most effective step in preparing for this disaster is very simple—don’t live anywhere near one of those things. A volcano is a vent to the fire and brimstone of the underworld. If it’s been active in the last 10,000 years, it’s still something to be concerned about. The danger zone around a volcano is anywhere from twenty miles from the base to one hundred miles away. Depending on size of eruption and wind currents, the maximum danger zone could be hundreds of miles away downwind. Unless you’re living on the mountain itself, molten lava is not the danger to you personally, although you can forget about anything in its path. Lava moves slowly enough that you can actually run away from it. The danger comes from ash, and most immediately from the ash that is combined with water. The slide from this combined ash and water and all the debris it picks up in its way, a lahar, can flow at over 100 MPH. You cannot outrun it and you cannot outdrive it; you can only avoid being in its path. Another danger is the pressure that’s built up under the volcano can vent not only out the top, but out the side of the mountain as well, throwing rock, boulders, mud, and ash horizontally for several miles, killing on impact. (Think of the big guns on the U.S.S. Iowa.) More, the eruption itself can be accompanied by earthquake, flood, landslides, and fire, as well as the more mundane problems of loss of electricity and water supplies for extended periods. You may be able to receive medical care if needed, but with the number of others in the same situation and lack of physical access to medical facilities due to transportation network disruptions, you should plan to be on your own for at least a week.

Even if you escape the lava, the lahar, and injury from any of a number of unknown causes when a large population is confronted with disaster, if you are in the vicinity of the volcano eruption or even hundreds of miles downwind of it, you’ll have to deal with the ash fall. Volcanic ash is composed of tiny, sharp particles containing Sulphur dioxide and hydro fluoride. The particles are small enough to get into the bronchioles of the lungs causing breathing difficulties, and the chemicals can cause extreme diarrhea. Ash settling on the roof of a house, especially with rain that will be likely result from the effect of the ash clouds in the atmosphere, can be heavy enough to collapse the roof of a house.

Eruptions are normally predictable—you’ll have sufficient time to get away from the area until the danger has passed. If, however, you are caught in an eruption zone, there are measures you can take to be prepared to ride out the worst of the disaster until life becomes a little more normal.

You may be without water and power for some time. Volcanic ash can get into any machinery, damaging it and rendering it unusable. If the machinery of power production and water delivery are not immediately damaged by ash fall, the services may still be shut down temporarily just to ensure that facilities are not damaged and still usable when the worst of the disaster is passed.

For the same reason, you should not drive your car. Ash particles can destroy the moving parts of an engine. As well, ash coating the streets, especially when wet, can cause extremely unsafe driving conditions. If you have to sacrifice your car to get out of an ash fall area, keep your speed below 35 mph and drive as if you were on ice and snow. Be prepared for the engine to freeze up at any time and concentrate on avoiding any low-lying areas where lahar flows can be life threatening and getting to a safer zone as quickly as possible.

The environment you live in will determine, to some extent, the type of equipment and supplies you will want to stock. Those in the Pacific Northwest need to be concerned with staying warm and dry; those in hot, dry climates need to think more about staying well hydrated and cool.

Your minimum emergency supply list, at a minimum, should be:

  • Dust masks for each family member. Keep in mind each person may go through several. The International Volcanic Health Hazard Network recommends the 3M 8233 mask as sufficient to filter out volcanic ash for up to 38 hours. They are inexpensive; buy at least a week’s supply for all family members. (link)
  • Drinking water—at least 3 gallons per person per day. With sufficient warning you can fill a bath tub, but make sure you have a way to cover it. You can also purchase inexpensive large capacity containers. (Link to water filters and storage.)
  • Carbon monoxide sensor(s) should be installed and operational now.
  • Good quality, comprehensive first aid kit. Make sure to include anti-diarrheal medication. As mentioned above, this is one of the side effects of breathing even tiny amounts of ash.
  • Non-perishable food for each person for at least a week.
  • Battery-operated radio.
  • Heat–resistant gloves.
  • Spare clothing to cover your entire body.
  • Blanket for each person for whom you are preparing. (Plan to be without heat for at least a week.)
  • If you have a fireplace, make sure you have enough wood on hand to last a week in constant use.
  • Detailed maps of your area and a compass. (It goes without saying—don’t even think about internet map services.) A GPS, though, may be very useful. Keep it wrapped in plastic and sealed against outside air. Ash particles can kill electronics quickly.
  • If you wear contacts, make sure you have glasses. Leave the contacts in the case. Volcanic ash under a contact lens is not something you want to take a chance on.
  • In the immediate aftermath of an eruption, have a helmet available. Even a bike helmet is better than nothing.
  • Portable light – flashlights or lanterns with spare batteries and/or fuel.
  • Duct tape and plastic sheeting to cover doors and windows.
  • Non-electronic entertainment for each family member. Being stuck indoors for several days can be awfully boring. Some suggestions are board games, puzzles, cards, books, and craft supplies.
  • Cleaning supplies. Brooms, dust pan, mop, shovels, garbage bags, vacuum, and lots of extra filter bags. Garbage bags don’t have to be large; if you put ash in them they’ll get real heavy real fast.
  • Don’t count on banks being open or ATMs being functional.

The first order of business in case of volcanic eruption is to leave the area before it happens. If this is impossible, you’ll have to plan to ride out the storm on your own; do not count on emergency rescue from private or government sources. Here’s a start to your emergency plan:

  • Build your emergency supply kit. The above list is a minimum. Based on your own circumstances, you’ll probably need more items and a week’s supply of each is minimum. Consider things like extra, non-expired prescription medications.
  • Make sure everyone in your family knows where the kit is and how to use everything in it; everything should be at hand where you can get to it easily and quickly.
  • If you live in a volcano zone, your local government has detailed information for your immediate area. Take the time now to make a visit and collect all available information. When an eruption is imminent it may be too late.
  • When an emergency of any kind happens, it’s doubtful all family members will be present and accounted for. Make sure you have an emergency contact plan and an easily-reachable rendezvous point and that every family member knows where it is.
  • Close all entrances to your house where air might enter. Turn off heating and air conditioning. If you have emergency gas heat, ensure it’s properly vented.
  • Stay indoors until all ash has settled if possible. If ash fall is heavy enough to present any possibility of damaging you’re home’s roof, plan to go someplace safer. You can text SHELTER + your zip code to 43662 (4FEMA) to find your nearest shelter. If you plan to remain in your own house, be prepared to shovel the ash off the roof periodically. In this case, ensure have easy and safe access to your roof.
  • Until you know the air is safe, wear an effective dusk mask. Ash particles may be in the air, yet impossible to see and still very harmful to lungs and digestive systems.
  • Wear clothing that completely covers the body.
  • Wrap all electronic gear in plastic and seal with duct tape. Your TV and computers will be unavailable for the duration, as air-borne ash can kill them quickly.
  • Put your contact lenses away for the duration. Make sure you have glasses available if you need them.
  • Stay informed. Make sure you have a battery-powered radio tuned to an emergency information station and check it frequently. Preset emergency stations for quick access. NOAH Weather Radio.

Remember that a major volcanic eruption can affect weather for a l-o-o-ng time. If you have the ability, storing emergency supplies for the long haul, should the end of the world as we know it come (TEOTWAWKI), is never a bad idea.

  • Be prepared,

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