Orting, Fife, Puyallup grow despite danger
Despite a decade of warnings from experts that a disaster could happen, thousands more people have moved into the likely path of Mount Rainier's next volcanic mudflow.
Volcanic activity, an earthquake or an avalanche could trigger a large mudflow. Traveling up to 50 mph with the consistency of wet cement, a mudflow could roar into the Puyallup Valley, passing over Orting in 30 minutes and on to Sumner, Fife, Puyallup and Tacoma.
Mudflows have done so before, experts say. There is a one-in-seven chance Mount Rainier will trigger another large mudflow during an average person's lifetime. That's based mainly on research done since Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980.
The largest population increase has been along the Puyallup and Carbon rivers through Orting and on to the edge of Sumner - one of the areas most likely to see a mudflow. The population there has grown by 38 percent, or 2,226 people, since 1990.
Thousands more homes are approved for construction. The only restriction is on schools, hospitals and other high-occupancy buildings in mudflow pathways. But those restrictions apply only in Sumner and unincorporated Pierce County. The Orting School District opened an upper-elementary school within the city limits in the mudflow zone last year and plans to build another high school.
Not only are there more people to evacuate from the mudflow routes, but highways leading out have become packed with traffic brought on by growth.
Paul Pastor, the Pierce County sheriff, participated in a large-scale, mock volcanic eruption drill in May. The results weren't pretty, with thousands of people killed when the computer-simulated mudflow roared across gridlocked evacuation routes.
"One of the things we learned is that as the county has grown tremendously," Pastor said, "the road and transportation infrastructure is an impediment to getting people out of danger areas."
Local officials have allowed too much growth in Orting, said Kim Lemka, an area resident. It's likely that many won't survive if a sudden mudflow comes, she said.
"Nobody's willing to face it," Lemka said. "There are solutions, but people are turning deaf ears."
Living in the 'critical path'
Pierce County emergency officials estimate that in the Puyallup Valley alone, more than 30,000 residents and uncounted workers would be in danger from a major mudflow, widely known by the Indonesian word "lahar."
"We're prepared, and we have a plan," said Veronica Kuebler, a five-year Orting resident. "But we don't let it rule our lives. If you let it, you're living in the wrong place."
Her family has a city evacuation route map and its own plan. The children will try to get to a church on South Hill. The parents will try to make it to the South Hill Mall, then pick up the children and go to a sister's home in Yelm, she said.
"You can't live scared," said Lindsay Airington, who moved to Orting less than two months ago. "We can't live worrying about it. It's the same as earthquakes."
Shelli Brevik said her family got an evacuation plan from the real estate agent who sold them their Orting home a year ago.
Local bankers said they are aware of past lahars in the Puyallup Valley but still lend to home buyers there.
"It could happen 300 years from now," said David Brown, president of Puyallup Valley Bank. "I might have questions, but it isn't a reason not to lend."
In 1991, Pierce County adopted a volcanic hazards ordinance to ban schools, hospitals, jails, large public buildings and any building that can house more than 5,000 people in lahar pathways. The City of Sumner adopted a similar ordinance.
But neither the county nor Sumner has banned home building or smaller commercial construction in the lahar zone. Fife has no building restrictions in the lahar hazard area. Neither does Puyallup, the largest municipality in the lahar pathway. Its lahar hazard area includes the older part of the city that sits on the valley floor.
Students must walk out
The Sumner School District has five schools in the lahar path, housing more than 4,000 students.
"We anticipate a Mount St. Helens situation," said Ann Cook, a spokeswoman for the Sumner district. Mount St. Helens grumbled for weeks before exploding, giving officials plenty of time to warn people in danger.
But if a sudden lahar occurs, students have an hour or less to get to higher ground.
"We'll have to walk our students out," Cook said. "They'll grab their coats and go."
The district's bus garage is on the plateau in Bonney Lake. Evacuation plans call for Highway 410 to be one-way uphill to get people out, which makes it impossible for buses to come down, said William Noland, assistant superintendent of the Sumner School District. Plus, population growth guarantees gridlock on the roads to safety, he said.
The 500 students at McAlder Elementary School, located along the Puyallup River north of Orting, have access to a bridge over the river at 96th Street East. They likely will walk about a 11/2 miles to high ground.
The rapidly growing Orting School District has four schools and 1,692 students in the lahar path, and is planning to build another school.
"The kids are here," said Sandi McCord, superintendent of Orting schools. "We have to provide for our families here."
Rex Kerbs, principal of Ptarmigan Ridge Intermediate School in Orting and a geologist, said Highway 162 would be clogged with traffic and inaccessible as an evacuation route for his students. Orting buses aren't near enough to get his students out in time, he said, so his 450 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders also will have to walk out.
Kerbs' students will walk along a gravel road to the Puyallup River levee, then along the levee south to the Puyallup River bridge at Orting. They will walk past the Orting Soldiers' Home and uphill to higher ground. Four-wheel-drive vehicles will carry disabled students.
The distance is 2.3 miles, and the students have at least 30 minutes.
"I wish we had more time," Kerbs said. "Maybe we will."
The schools are as ready as they can be through drills and education, but the Orting School District - along with the Fife and Puyallup districts - continue to build new schools in the lahar path.
Orting schools Superintendent McCord said officials looked at building on higher ground, but found the costs too high. Essential services, such as water, were lacking at possible sites.
The district once planned a new school in unincorporated Pierce County, closer to high ground, McCord said. But the County Council prohibits schools in lahar pathways.
Orting Mayor Sam Colorossi said the city allows new schools, but wants them to have emergency evacuation plans and to demonstrate they work.
Marianne Smith, the Orting district's emergency coordinator, remains concerned about evacuating a high school, middle school and another elementary school - more than 1,200 students - via Highway 162. She hopes school buses will get a head start and avoid a traffic jam. School principals have pagers connected to county emergency dispatchers and should be among the first notified.
Smith said she also hopes the city will get a grant to build a footbridge over the Carbon River, which would give students a quicker way out. The city didn't get $1.4 million in state grant funds this year, but is still trying.
"We need the bridge," Smith said. "I know we need it."
Growth intensifies danger
Population growth in the Puyallup Valley, inside and outside the lahar pathway, has been significant in the past decade, according to Census 2000.
Orting has grown from 2,106 to 3,760 people, an increase of 78.5 percent. The city has approved another 1,375 lots for building, but some construction will be delayed because of a moratorium on water hookups, city officials said. The entire city lies within the lahar zone.
Puyallup, Sumner and Fife have added more than 12,000 people in the past decade. Home developers want to add more than 2,000 new residents in Fife over the next four years.
Traffic congestion on roads leading out of the Puyallup Valley already creates bumper-to-bumper slowdowns during rush hours. On many days, Highways 167 and 410 average more than 50,000 vehicles per day at Sumner, according to the state Department of Transportation. Highway 162 between Orting and Sumner, a two-lane road built to handle 48,000 cars a day, averages about 16,000, but backs up at rush hour.
Steve Bailey, director of the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management, said no one is writing off Orting residents. As far as growth is concerned, Bailey said, he cannot stop it.
"I play the hand I'm dealt," he said.
Bailey and Puyallup Fire Chief Merle Frank agreed that there will be casualties if a lahar comes suddenly.
"We can't get them all out," said Frank. "That needs to be said."
Colorossi, the Orting mayor, said evacuation plans and warning systems are being perfected.
He said officials went door-to-door to pass out evacuation-route maps. Schools in the city have evacuation plans, and students participate in drills. Warning sirens are in place. New evacuation-route signs are up on roads leading out. New residents get evacuation packets.
Experts give warnings
In the past two decades, geologists and volcanologists have become strong advocates for preparedness.
Mount St. Helens' eruptions weren't the only disasters that jump-started more intensive studies of volcanos in the Cascades.
Fifteen years ago, a volcano in Colombia similar to Mount Rainier had a minor eruption but released enough molten rock to trigger a lahar. In 21/2 hours, the lahar traveled 47 miles to the community of Armero, where it killed more than 20,000.
Experts say the Colombia lahar is the worst case. A Mount Rainier lahar would follow days or months of volcanic buildup, but there's a slim chance it could come much faster.
"We just want people to know what the issues are," said Carolyn Driedger, a lahar expert for the United States Geological Survey, "not to panic people but to inform them about living with a volcano in their back yard."
For instance, she said, it's easier to build in safe areas than to relocate whole communities because of repeated lahars onto nearby valley floors.
Pat Pringle, a state geologist who studies lahars, said they shouldn't be underestimated. A worst-case lahar could spill into heavily populated South King County and north to Seattle and Elliott Bay via the Duwamish waterway, he said.
Some experts are less concerned about a lahar rolling down the White, Nisqually or Cowlitz rivers. They believe a lahar probably won't pass beyond reservoirs on the three rivers: Mud Mountain Dam on the White; Alder Lake on the Nisqually; and Riffe Lake on the Cowlitz.
Still, the census shows that more than 2,000 people in Elbe, Greenwater, Packwood, Randle and surrounding areas live near these rivers in ancient mudflow pathways above the reservoirs. They could be in as much danger from a lahar as the tens of thousands of people in the Puyallup Valley.
People will continue to move into lahar pathways, ensuring more clogged roads and more schools in harm's way.
Pringle said while Orting is beautiful, he wouldn't live in a lahar pathway. He lives in Olympia.
"As a geologist, I have to live the life," he said. "I choose not to live in an area that might be inundated."
Staff writers Sandi Doughton and Paula Lavigne Sullivan contributed to this report.
Rob Tucker can be reached at 253-597-8374 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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