Friday, September 09, 2005

Technology to help warn people in advance of eruptions

Back in the spring of 1980, geologists and other science specialists with and for the government were actively tracking and predicting the eruption of Mount St. Helen in the state of Washington, actually not a great deal north of Portland, Oregon.

While history had noted that such volcano eruptions in various counties had killed thousands, the advances in science and the greatly-increased capability of reaching people with warnings and sound advice seemed to assure that the coming eruption should not claim human lives -- certainly no large toll of lives.

Portland and other population centers were far enough away that they would get no direct impacts, although there were cautions about impacts on rivers, including the big Columbia River, running to the ocean.

When, in May, the eruption became imminent, danger zones were mapped and color-coded and warned away from. Difficult as it was amid brush, dense woods, rocky terrain, etc., local, state and federal people hunted out folks, including stubborn, longtime residents who didn’t want to leave, adventurers who wouldn’t believe they could not flee in time if necessary, doubters about the scope of the volcanic impact, etc.

The most famous in 1980 was a man named Harry Truman, same name as the late former President (from 1945-1952), though not indicated related.

In the end, as the volcanic eruption came, close to the forecasts on May 18, a few over 60 people died including that elderly state of Washington Harry Truman, some campers who wanted to see the eruption up close and others who simply wouldn't be warned or wouldn’t believe. Maybe a few who, despite the publicity and markings, didn’t know.

Considering all this, one can imagine the difficulties there had to be to help in time for a significant number of people in a population center the size of New Orleans as a hurricane-flood threat was a real possibility.

Despite all the modern technology and huge advances in communications even since 1980, and more media people than the afflicted in some situations, people seem to know less than when we waxed shut hand-written letters and waited eight months for a reply from London.

An attempt for wit in the current grim scene has included one notation that if each of the media people swarming the New Orleans scene would depart with a bucket of water, the flood would be over.

But aside from all the perceived shortcomings of governments or inabilities or unwillingness of people to connect and understand sufficiently to avoid miseries and a significant number of injuries and deaths, there should be a realization that we pay a price for the constant degrading of all our services. This didn’t happen just since Bush or since Clinton. It’s gone on for decades.

Communications is more than a matter of technology. A message arriving means nothing if not heeded. In these respects, it is really too bad that we are closing license branches and rural post offices and ending personal deliveries of so many things, maybe cutting back on libraries and other services by which government and people and businesses and people actually connect as humans.

Of course, there are huge logistics involved with a city like New Orleans and many other problems. There are needs in the economy and in government to get the economies involved in size. But there is a need also for contact, and a need for trust to develop or have a chance, even where there are differences, many of which should be minimized, not magnified.

So-called snail mail really does have some advantages over e-mail, even as wonderful as the advances may be.

In last January’s large ice storm that knocked out the Bluffton North Power Station and downed electric installations of American Electric Power (I&M-AEP) and others over a considerable area, Wells County Emergency Management Agency director Jerri Lehman and rural firefighters of Wells County plus some other volunteers went house to house in rural stretches of power-dark Southern Wells County to make sure people in homes were okay -- to get folks to where there was heat and food and water.

Now, THERE was a form of communications technology that works in ALL seasons and places.

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