I have never had to leave my home in an evacuation from a natural disaster. I’ll put that out there right now. So, I might not fully understand the emotions going through people when they find out that they have to leave their home by no fault of their own because nature has decided that where they live is no longer livable. I especially don’t know what it might be like if you are then told you can never go back. You might have a home there. You might own a business there. You might have grown up there. Your great grandparents might have lived there over 100 years ago. Yet, you are told – likely by the government – you can never go back because they have deemed it “unsafe”. I’m not even sure who I would respond, especially if you are able to go back to your home to collect your belongings and you see that the town is still there – its not like it has been wiped off the face of the earth. Why should you leave? Isn’t it your decision about where you live (and die)?

This is the struggle going on right now in Chaiten, Chile. The volcano has been erupting since May of 2008 with one of the most spectacular eruptions in the (modern) history of Chile, with its latest outburst coming last Thursday (2/19), producing impressive pyroclastic flows and ash falls that blanketed the countryside around the rhyolite volcano and destroyed more of the town of Chaiten (above). Yet even after all this and even after the government has announced that Chaiten (the town) will not be rebuilt, people will not leave. The Chilean government has told the last 200 residents of Chaiten that they must be evacuated from the town, especially after the powerful (and unexpected) outburst from the volcano only 10 kilometers from the town, but a few dozen people have decided they will not leave. I don’t want to judge these people, but living near an active, explosive volcano is dangerous and when destruction comes, you likely won’t have any warning (or at least not enough time to do anything about it). You can’t really mitigate against a pyroclastic flow like you can against flooding or earthquake hazards – a town in the path of a pyroclastic flow will not survive – so you can’t blame the government for wanting to just declare Chaiten a “lost town” and move the residents to a safer area. However, the people refusing to leave don’t see it that way, and the matter is heading into the Chilean courts and even into the Presidential election in Chile.

This is a difficult situation. The last Chaiteninos say the government didn’t give them a say in the decision to abandon the town. However, there really isn’t much to discuss with the townspeople – you stay, and likely Chaiten will destroy you or your home. You leave, you leave behind the town you called home and everything in which you are familiar. There is no easy solution. What would you do in this situation? Have any of you face this type of thing? This is really where man and nature butt heads and most of the time, nature wins.

//Below are the comments left on my original blog concerning this post – it was an excellent discussion//

Brian Owens Says:
February 23, 2009 at 7:27 pm e
Sometimes it is easy for us in modern society with the best scientists to look down on people like that, and say they are superstitious and ignorant. But I clearly remember the same thing happened with Mt. St. Helens in 1980. There were a lot of angry home owners and property owners that were upset because they had been evacuated from the Red Zone. Some of them were saying the scientists had no idea what they were talking about, that it would not have a big eruption, etc.

In fact, the day before the big eruption, the authorities escorted groups of them during the day to check on their property. Had it erupted that day instead, a lot more people would have died.

I think it is human nature to be in denial. Smokers don’t think they will get lung cancer, despite all the warning. Some people still do not wear their seat belts. And many of us know about the struggle with weight (including me, I have lost a lot of weight, but it is still hard to maintain), despite that we all know the consequences.

Human nature I think is to think that “it won’t happen to me”. Certainly in some cultures there is ignorance of science, but I think it is more human nature.

And one of the problems is that scientists don’t really know what it will do. Will there be an end-game huge eruption? Will there be devastating pyroclastic flows? Nobody can say with certainty, and unfortunately, that is what people want.

lance Says:
February 23, 2009 at 7:40 pm e
My libertarian bones say let them stay. If they are killed, it is the choice they made. But, in another emergency people will go try to rescue them, putting others in danger. It is like the people along the Mississippi who insist on rebuilding their houses in flood zones. No matter how tough you are about saying you are going to refuse help, when the time comes, you know that they will be rescued and sent help in the next flood.

Humans and hazards « Volcanista: a magmalicious blog Says:
February 23, 2009 at 8:22 pm e
[...] Geoblogosphere! Science seminar video February 23, 2009Volcanism and society: What to do about Chaiten February 23, 2009WaterWatch — Current Water Resources Conditions (USGS) February 23, 2009The [...]

Ron de Haan Says:
February 23, 2009 at 8:29 pm e
History provides insight in what happened o cities after a devastating volcanic eruption, a flood or an earthquake.
Most of them have been rebuild.
Just look at Mount Vesuvius in Italy.
Despite the threat of a new eruption people people have stayed and populations have grown.
The same will happen to the town of Chaitén.

jesse Says:
February 23, 2009 at 9:12 pm e
I think there’s 2 issues at play here. First, we here in modern society see moving as a much easier task than many people. Want to move to rural Kansas? Call a mover, find an apartment, and go. But my guess is, in places like Chaiten the people don’t have the same resources as us, and moving to a completely new, unknown, foreign place is a lot more daunting. I imagine it’d be a lot like someone saying “OK Erik. Tomorrow you’re moving to Istambul. You can only take what you can carry on your back, and you can’t buy any new bags or suitcases. Ready? GO!”

Secondly, pepole are inherantly stubborn. When Hurricane Ike was bearing down on us here in the Gulf, there were dozens if not hundreds of people who wouldn’t leave Galveston island, even though you could literally see the storm approaching out your window. What did the govt say? “Write your SSN# on your arm with a sharpie so we can identify your body. You will face certain death.” Did people leave? Nope (well, hopefully a few more did). It’s that pesky “invincible” gene people have.

Bruce Says:
February 23, 2009 at 11:26 pm e
Nicely written piece and sums it up quite nicely. While I respect people’s freedom to take risks with their own lives I think society should draw the line when others’ lives are at risk. This is certainly the case when children are involved..

As an individual I could imagine taking such risks but I think the authorities (and volcanologists who inform the authorities) are in a totally different position. They have a duty to save life first and foremost.

The real trouble is not so much in this principle but in where to set the border? How likely is it that a PF will reach Chaiten town? It appears that this chance is very likely, ( but then again so is the chance of a major earthquake in SoCal.)

If I had grown up in Chaiten I’d have moved out by now and would be waiting until the volcano quietened down before moving back. I think the authorities are doing the right thing.

volcanism Says:
February 24, 2009 at 9:10 am e
A good article that takes a humane and balanced, but also a realistic, view. Thanks, Erik.

An interesting point for me is that opinion in the rest of Chile does not seem to be particularly sympathetic to the Chaiten diehards (who are, it’s important to note, a tiny minority of those who have been evacuated). Chileans elsewhere in the country see the chaiteninos being offered a very good deal with support and guarantees they themselves could never hope to receive. They have also seen protesting chaiteninos waving Argentine flags and claiming that Argentina has their interests at heart more than their own country. That gesture went down very badly in Chile. National policitians who try to exploit Chaiten in the approaching elections are unlikely to find it will do them any good.

You have to feel human sympathy with the people of Chaiten, but their case is a hopeless one. They have not been well served, by the national Government which has taken ages over making its final decision over their future and has sent out ambiguous signals, and by local politicians who have grandstanded over the issue and irresponsibly raised hopes in the people of Chaiten that could never be fulfilled.

In the end it isn’t the Chilean Government’s job to sustain a self-indulgent few in their delusions, particularly when doing so means putting the lives of others on the line.

boris behncke Says:
February 24, 2009 at 11:56 am e
This is a very sensibly written essay on a very pressing problem in modern volcanology, which in this particular case concerns a relatively small number of persons, but in other cases may involve considerably larger numbers of people. Basically, volcanologists and collaborating administrations and civil defence staff are in the grip of two main uncertainties, one is how the volcano will behave, and the other is how the affected people will behave. It is known from many cases that during volcanic crises there have always been a certain number of people reluctant or right away refusing to leave areas defined as dangerous. Let’s remember, to name a few, Harry Truman and others – as mentioned above in the first comment – at Mount St. Helens in 1980, or the people who died in 1997 at Soufrière Hills on Montserrat, all in areas clearly described as highly dangerous and basically off-limits by previous warnings given by volcanologists. Such behavior is like driving dangerously (something I experience everyday in Catania, Sicily) while well knowing that this can endanger your and other people’s lives. Or whatever sort of drug use (including excessive smoking and alcohol consumption), you know about the risk but you do it nonetheless. In the case of people facing evacuation there is an additional factor, there is a lot to lose. I certainly find it an absolute horror vision to imagine that one day I might be forced to leave my home (what with the entire volcanology stuff that I call my own, including hundreds of books and papers …) because Etna decides to open a new vent nearby. Certainly I would move away because I know the risk, but it would be one extreme hardship. Now imagine you do not really know about the risk and you are really not convinced.
And then, volcanoes do not only do what volcanologists believe they will do. Redoubt is a fine example, for the moment. Anyone remember the Soufrière of Guadeloupe (Caribbean) crisis in 1976-1977? At that time more than 70,000 people were evacuated because a pyroclastic-flow-generating eruption was considered imminent by some scientists, although others said there would be no major eruption. Eventually an international team of volcanologists stated that there was indeed no risk of a major eruption, and evacuees were allowed to return home – after three months of living under unimaginable conditions.
Now let’s imagine next time it will be Vesuvius in Italy to give signs of life. An emergency plan elaborated by Civil Defence, authorities and volcanologists envisages evacuation of more than half a million people from the areas of highest risk. Let us now imagine this evacuation is performed smoothly (difficult to imagine, frankly, for anyone knowing the reality of traffic, lifelines, and organization in that area), and all those people are brought away (although we would certainly experience the same cases of people strictly refusing to leave). And Vesuvius does the same thing as Redoubt in these days – it trembles, it fumes, but it does not erupt, for one week, two weeks, one month … for how long? For how long will it be economically and humanely bearable to keep more than half a million people from their normal social, cultural and economic life?
The simultaneous developments at Chaitén and Redoubt are very strong reminders of how far we will still have to go to come to a complete understanding of the volcanic and anthropological factors interacting in volcanic crises, and how likely it is that we will continue to be taught painful lessons.

Under the volcano, Chaitén diehards continue their fight « The Volcanism Blog Says:
February 24, 2009 at 1:42 pm e
[...] At the Eruptions blog, Erik Klemetti has written a well-balanced piece on the Chaitén situation, with more general reference to the difficulties of persuading people to abandon their homes and the lives they have known in the face of volcanic hazards, actual or predicted: ‘Volcanism and society: What to do about Chaiten’. [...]

gg Says:
February 24, 2009 at 2:09 pm e
Remember Harry Truman of Mount St. Helen’s? He died on that peak.

Melissa Says:
February 24, 2009 at 7:47 pm e
The people of Chaiten are a wonderful people, and although they are Chilenos, they are even more so very cultured and very good people. I have had the benefit of living in Chaiten in February 2008, months before the first eruption, and it’s a very unique town. It was the center for tourism in southern Chile, a gateway to patagonia. A gateway to the entrance of the southern edge of Parque Pumalin (the many million hectar reserve by the founder of Patagonia company…which is amazing). It was a gateway to the other nearby town of Futalefu, for all the white water die hards who traveled by sea vs thru Argentina by land.

I have a hard time watching all this happen to Chaiten, and wonder about the families I have known and the people I dined with, danced with, drank with, played music with, walked with and talked with. There is and there will be no other similar place in Chile. I think it is wonderful that these people want to stay in their homes, and to be honest with you I can’t blame them. I feel that they must have hope that the volcano will eventually rest and they will be able to rebuild the town to the seaport town that it once was. In fact, I dream of the day that I can buy property in the area, as I would like to retire there, and no volcano is going to stop me either. I know the risks, but to live in an area with true beauty is worth those risks, and know that with the Chaiteninos, I’ll die happy.

Breier Ralf Says:
February 24, 2009 at 8:45 pm e
I am working on a documentary about Chaiten for German public television. I have been to Chaiten several times since April 2007. I have been filming a lot of material before the volcano erupted and after. We intend to do a long documentary of 90 minutes and will follow up the development of the tragedy and the people who lost their homeland.

werner luis Says:
February 25, 2009 at 1:38 am e
I am living now 60 year near volcanoes and I agree with Ron de Haan and Melissa. Chaiten will continue with or without the help of government.

J Says:
February 25, 2009 at 3:33 pm e
Chaiteninos are responding in a pretty reasonable manner to an impossible situation. I have been following this eruption since last year when it began and with the volcano’s initial decline it would be easy to sense that the major danger is over, even with the recent unrest. And who could blame them for treating their government with skepticism. The government has not acted in their best interest so far.
If I could elaborate a bit more on Erik’s comment “I especially don’t know what it might be like if you are then told you can never go back. You might have a home there. You might own a business there. You might have grown up there. Your great grandparents might have lived there over 100 years ago. Yet, you are told – likely by the government – you can never go back because they have deemed it “unsafe”.”
I don’t know from personal experience either but I imagine the consequences are more intricate than I can even imagine, and here is what I can imagine…
Home – not just purchased by you but likely built by you and your family and your friends.
Business – Chaiteninos developed their town into a bit of a tourist destination. If you have ever considered taking the chance on a career change. Doing something completely different than you have ever done before professionally, you can appreciate the courage, and dedication it must have taken for the citizens to embrace that kind of change.
Family has lived there over 100 years – That is 100 years worth of family buried beneath the volcano, including parents, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives and children.

Bruce S. Says:
February 25, 2009 at 10:25 pm e
An Ralf Breier: wann wird es ausgestrahlt? Das muss ich unbedingt sehen!!

Chance Metz Says:
February 26, 2009 at 2:09 am e
To J I have this to say.Don’t you get that it is not safe there? This volcano is still erutping and the lava dome could collapse at anytime. the town is finsished,done and there is nothing that can change thta. You can’t grow anytihng there due to the ash you have no water electricity,heat,telphone or sewage so how can you live there? Tell me that one? Really if you side with them then go there and be one f the people that will die there like they are sure t do if they stay!

Breier Ralf Says:
February 26, 2009 at 7:40 pm e
Message for Bruce S. : I don´t know when we will be ready with our long documentary. We might finish when decisions on both sides fall into places. I am on my way to Chile and will be back by end of March with new material. The ministro del Interior made a decision for the Nuevo Chaitén just today. Some people will start rebuilding the Nuevo Chaitén pretty soon and some will stay on their own in the old town Chaitén.
Will keep you posted or just check our website, we will announce the dates for broadcasting. The 30 minute reportage will be broadcasted by WDR – German public television on March 24th at 10:00 p.m. German time.

yellow bird Says:
February 27, 2009 at 5:41 am e
I can not understand peoples attachment to buildings. They are just bricks & mortar but I do not evacuate without my pets & the native animals who visit my garden & I would kill anyone who would stop me from doing this. However if all the native animals are dead what is the point of staying? I think Chaiten is dead & it should never be rebuilt. lt should become part of the national park there. Let the native vegetation regrow & the ruins can be a tourist attraction.

Entriqued Says:
March 4, 2009 at 5:37 pm e
I don’t know, that looks livable to me. I’ll take the green roof right on the edge. Great river view!! Spacious living.

Sure why not!

When the river is eye level I’ll just go upstairs.