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State tabletop puts the focus on volcanoes


Emergency Management leadership talk with the governor's policy analyst prior to the tabletop exercise on Aug. 10.

State tabletop puts the focus on volcanoes

A full house of state officials from nearly every state agency on Thursday talked about steps the state should take should Mt. St. Helens erupt again.

There’s no imminent threat of an eruption. The example was just used during a quarterly tabletop exercise designed to help state agencies practice disaster preparedness skills. Similar tabletop exercises have looked at earthquakes, floods, winter storms, even a cyber terrorist attack.

The tabletop was designed and facilitated by the Washington Emergency Management Division. Although Mt. St Helens was the focus, volcano program coordinator Brian Terbush said the focus could just as easily have been on Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker or one of the other volcanoes in the state since the threat of lahars and ash fall remain the same.

Mt. St. Helens famously blew its top in 1980, and then saw more volcanic activity between 2004 and 2008.

“How do we know what might happen? Hazard mapping,” Terbush told the state officials gathered at separate tables with a giant map in the center of each table.

Volcanic eruptions aren’t like earthquakes, which could happen at any time without warning. The U.S. Geological Survey has established observatories to monitor volcanoes. The one for Oregon, Washington and Idaho is located in Vancouver.

As a result, special monitors and equipment should give scientists a heads up if an eruption were to happen. Residents had many months to prepare for the 1980 eruption, for instance. Equipment has become much more fine-tuned since then, Terbush added.


Chief Information Officer Matt Modarelli acts as disaster manager, leading the conversation with state officials.

State officials from the Governor’s Office, Department of Social and Health Services, the Attorney General’s Office, Labor & Industries, the Washington State Patrol, Department of Revenue, Financial Institutions, Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, state Department of Transportation, Department of Health and many other state agencies attended the two-hour long session.

 “There’s no right answer, there’s no wrong answer, this is a low threat environment that just gives us an opportunity to sit down and talk about a natural disaster our state could face and have us think about some of the things we’d face should a volcano erupt,” said Major General Bret D. Daugherty, the state’s adjutant general and director of the Washington Military Department. “Clearly, we’re talking about Mt. St. Helens, but anytime you fly around or drive around or state, you see we’re clearly surrounded by volcanoes and we have to be prepared should an eruption happen.”

The focus was on what to do when warnings are given ahead of a volcanic eruption, what to do immediately following an eruption and how recovery should work weeks later. There was also a lot of conversations about messaging to a public that will be uncertain before an eruption and scared when it happens.


Exercise Coordinator David Icenhower writes suggestions down
on issues that should be addressed before an eruption.


Two mock policy rooms were crafted with separate teams of state officials looking at the situation and disaster managers to guide the conversations

Much of the talk revolved around the threat of a lahar, a giant rolling wave of debris, mud, water and ash that could roll off a volcano. Mt. Rainier, in particular, deals with the threat of a lahar in populated areas. Ash was also a concern. Terbush said the lahar threat could have been worse for some populated areas around Mt. St. Helens and the ashfall could have been even worse than what it was had the wind changed directions to shift the ash toward more populated areas. Four inches of ash is enough to collapse a roof, Terbush pointed out.

Daugherty noted that following the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption, sediment and ash clogged the Columbia River, which became a problem for months.

Officials also talked about how to decide to close schools, day care centers, roads and who makes decisions on evacuations and closure areas. Pre-identifying debris management spots and establishing prioritization of access points also became a discussion point.

“The fact is we can't force people to evacuate but need a serious discussion on where to draw the line,” Daugherty said.

“We would need to start working on shelters and needs long before evacuations are actually required,” added Sue Bush, the emergency manager at the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Daugherty said working with Oregon would also be mandatory in any kind of response with Mt. St. Helens, in particular.

Even if a volcano doesn’t go off anytime soon, the conversations about evacuations, supply distribution points and what to do with long-term care residents could apply to a wildfire, flood or another disaster, said Robert Ezelle, the director of the Washington Emergency Management Division.