Volcanoes typically give warning before they erupt, but that warning may only be hours. You could be left with little or no time to prepare. May is Volcano Awareness Month in Washington State, and with the Kilauea eruption in Leilani Estates causing more evacuations, now is an excellent time for us all to find out if we're living in or visiting volcano country. If so, it's time to prepare

Before the Eruption

Even if it seems like there's virtually no chance you'll ever need it, you'll want to plan now. When the moment to evacuate comes, you may not have time to think. Get everything you'll need for a safe, successful evacuation lined up now.

  1. Identify the hazards you're facing. Volcanoes are a diverse bunch: know whether your area is more likely to be dealing with lava or lahars. The USGS Volcano Hazards website can help you get started. And your state should have its own emergency management and natural hazards resources for you to investigate. If you're not sure where to start, talk to your local fire department. They should be able to steer you right.
  2. Follow local, state, and federal agencies on social media. They'll keep you up to date with the doings of the volcanoes in your area. The USGS Volcanoes Facebook site is a great place to start.
  3. Make a family plan. "Family," of course, includes everyone living at the house. Make sure Everyone Knows what to do in the event of an eruption. You can find suggestions and templates for effective family plans at Ready.Gov. the Red Cross, and the USGS. Make sure to revise the plan if your household changes, as kids get older, and if anyone's capabilities change.
  4. Check your insurance. Many policies don't cover natural disasters like eruptions, or only offer limited coverage. Verify whether your home, possessions, automobiles, and other possessions are covered in the event of damage from lava, lahars, ash, and other volcanic hazards.
  5. Take photos of your house, vehicles, possessions, and other property in the event you'll need to file an insurance claim.
  6. Stash copies of your insurance policy, the insurance photos, and other important papers. They can be stored electronically on a jump drive, uploaded to a secure cloud server, or you can make paper copies to keep in a safe deposit box or other secure location. Just make sure they're somewhere you can retrieve them in the event a volcano eats your home and/or neighborhood.
  7. Determine what you'd most want to save in the event of an evacuation. Make checklists: One for the must-remember items like money, medications, important papers. One for irreplaceable portable stuff like Grandma's ashes & family photos. One for the would be nice to save, like artwork and other valuables. And finally, have a we-have-plenty-of-time-and-space list for things you can take out if you have plenty of time, a moving van, and storage elsewhere. Thinking about it now will help you prioritize when the dread day comes.
  8. Identify potential evacuation routes. Find at least two; preferably not along lava or lahar-prone routes like river valleys. Your local emergency planners may be able to help you pick the best routes.

Now that you're about as prepared as you can be, keep a watchful eye on your local volcano(es) and go on about your life. Volcanoes that are well-monitored typically give plenty of warnings before they blow. Support funding for volcano monitoring and emergency services, and don't live in fear. The odds of survival are definitely in your favor.

When the Signs Point to Eruption

What if you're living at or near ground zero for the next probable eruption, and the seismicity says magma or other hazards may soon be moving your way? Now's the time to prepare for the very worst. Volcanoes can rumble for months, or they can erupt relatively quickly. Prepare now to get you, your loved ones, and any important property ready to head to safety.

  1. Subscribe to emergency alerts. Your local, state, and federal agencies will be watching closely. It's best to know as soon as possible when it's time to leave, before police come pounding at your door to tell you to flee.
  2. Pack a go bag. You'll need your ID, clothes for several days, medications, phone, charger, and other essentials. You can find excellent suggestions as to what you should bring at Lifehacker, the Red Cross, and Ready.gov.
  3. Bring in the animals. One of the most heartbreaking things about the Hawaii eruption has been the stories of people forced to leave their pets behind. Cats and dogs have a terrible habit of going off and hiding when strange things are happening, and the increased seismicity, many strangers, and smells and sounds of a volcano's opening act can terrify them. Make sure to confine them where you can quickly find them, and keep their carriers and food, plus any medications they'll need, ready to go at a moment's notice. If you can send them somewhere safe for the duration, even better. The Red Cross has some good suggestions for pet needs during an evacuation.
  4. Gather keepsakes, important documents, and other things you'll not want to lose. Start with the most irreplaceable items first and work your way down the lists to the non-essentials as time allows. Get them out of the danger zone before the order to evacuate comes if possible; have them ready to go if not.
  5. Make a list of what you'll need to grab on your way out the door. You don't want to have to stop and think when the evacuation order comes. Also list important contacts, locations of shelters, and other necessary information. This is a good time to review your family plan with everyone, and make any modifications to it that the situation calls for. Make sure everyone knows what their role is, and what to do if you get separated. Make sure everyone and everything fits in one vehicle; you may not be allowed to take more than one if you evacuate at the last minute.
  6. Try to ensure someone is always at home who can grab all and go at a moment's notice. You may not be able to get to your house during the evacuation.

When the Order to Evacuate Comes

It's go time! Hopefully, the volcano has provided adequate notice, and you're not fleeing with a lava flow or ash cloud nipping at your heels. Regardless of whether you can see the danger or not, go when the authorities tell you it's time. Don't stay and try to save your home: what the volcano wants, it gets. You don't want to be trying to flee when the eruption has cut off your chances of escape.

  1. Grab your family, friends, pets, and go bags, and get the car loaded.
  2. If there's time and room, grab your irreplaceable stuff. If not, leave it: your life matters more than things.
  3. Follow all orders given by emergency authorities. Stay out of restricted areas unless you're specifically authorized to be there, and while in the restricted zone, stay tuned to local emergency updates by radio and other means. Don't try to take shortcuts or alternate routes unless the personnel monitoring the area have said it's safe. They know where the danger lies.
  4. Keep your wits about you. It's a chaotic and scary time; it may even feel like the world's about to end. And there are plenty of people who'll be talking like it is! Do yourself a kindness and seek out trustworthy sources of information. Volcanologists love talking volcanoes, and you can easily find them on Twitter and Facebook. They'll explain what's really going on and debunk the awful rumors. Take comfort in their knowledge.
  5. Avail yourself of counseling and other services offered by shelters, emergency management agencies, your local community, and any NGOs that arrive to help. Practice good self-care whenever and however you can. Rely on each other and the kindness of strangers. As Mr. Rogers said, "Look for the helpers." You're not alone, and plenty of good people will be there to help you through it.

Eventually, the volcano will return to sleep. And thanks to advance planning, volcano monitoring, and lots of emergency management experts, you'll be able to get back on your feet once the eruption ends.

Resources for Hawaii

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency

Evacuating during volcanic activity

General Sites

Red Cross: Volcano Preparedness

USGS: Be ready for the next volcanic event & Regional Preparedness Resources

Ready.gov: Volcanoes

Image is an aerial view of a volcanic fissure, surrounded by a narrow black lava flow, erupting short orange fountains of lava. The fissure is surrounded by beautiful green fields and houses.
Fissure 17 in Leilani Estates, HI. Credit: USGS