I would like to share two items with you. Keep in mind that this is my personal opinion as Mayor, and not necessarily the position of the City Council. Thanks for reading this.
Advanced Notice of Potential Lahars:
My recollection is that several years ago at a High Cedars meeting, Volcano experts from USGS explained that they have 3 sets of sensors on Mt. Rainier. The set highest up the mountain gives notice if there is any kind of rumbling. In a real lahar, that notice would be about 90 minutes before the lahar would reach Orting. The middle set of sensors would give about 70 minutes notice. It could be triggered by other causes such as a couple of rocks breaking loose and rolling down. The lowest one would definitely confirm a lahar and give 45-50-minute notice to Orting.
At that meeting I asked, why not notify the community when the second set gives 70 minute notice, with the understanding that it is a preliminary notice and it could well be a “False Alarm”. Then people could choose to leave immediately, or wait for the 45 minute definite confirming notice. Some would go early, some would wait. My thinking was that this would spread out the evacuation traffic over a longer period of time. The idea was rejected at that meeting.
Later on USGS scientists told me that they are concerned about giving potential “False-Positive” notices that could cause unnecessary panic, injury and/or fatalities. They also feared that if they cried “Woolf” too many times, people might ignore the real warning that gives 45-50 minutes notice. Therefore, they will only set off the Lahar sirens when the lowest set of sensors confirms that a real lahar is in progress.
The current system requires the information gathered from all 3 sites to analyze the volume and speed of the lahar and to determine if it is big enough to reach Orting. However, USGS scientists just told me that they are working on a newer system that, when done, will be able to provide better forecasts at an earlier time. For an extended period of time they will run both systems to make sure there are no glitches in the new one. Once the new sensor system is properly running, I will ask USGS to notify the City when one of the earlier sensors (located higher up on the mountain) indicates some form of activity.
While it would be relatively easy for city staff to walk out on the current 45-50-minute notice, their equipment would stay abandoned in town. I believe there would be a benefit to our citizens if the Fire, Police, and Public Works Departments could receive earlier notice of a potential, still unconfirmed lahar, to get their equipment to the Emergency Operations Center on Cemetery Hill. Then they could also block the roads into the valley until it is determined that it was a false alarm. In case of a real lahar they would have the tools and equipment ready to help the community immediately in the “after” situation. If the School District would also want to be authorized to receive such advance notice, they could have a “Fire Drill” practicing how they can bus special needs kids out of the valley.
These are preliminary thoughts, and a lot of details need to be worked out. Of course any decision will ultimately be made by the City Council with lots of community input.
A Quicker Way to Build a Lahar Escape:
The following information is also my personal strategic thinking as Mayor and not the positon of the City Council:
I’m excited that the Fire Chief and others have found a way to build a less expensive and more practical lahar evacuation bridge system. There would be two level bridges across the Carbon River connecting the Orting side levee to existing trails on the other side. One would be located close to Bridge St, the other close to a McCutcheon St extension.
According to Scott Jones, Senior Vice President of Newland Corp. and General Manager of the Tehaleh Development, the 2 bridges would cost approximately $ 4 million and trail improvements would keep the total cost well under $8 million. This bridge and trail system would provide an 8-mile hiking and biking trail loop for year-round use.
Tehaleh will have to pay substantial Park Impact Fees to Pierce County. Since a private company can probably get this bridge construction done quicker and cheaper than the government, I will work with Scott to ask the County to grant offsetting Impact Fees credit if Tehaleh builds the two bridges and does the trail improvements.
Also, a multi-purpose trail and bridge system will have a much better chance to qualify for multiple funding sources. Completion of this project will require the cooperation and teamwork of the City, Newland Co., Pierce County leaders and Parks Department, the Puyallup Tribe, and Federal and State Legislators.
These two bridges and the Soldiers Home route would provide 3 ways to get out of the valley. One of the challenges will be to have an effective communication system to let parents know that their children are safe and where they are.
I want to express my appreciation to the many dedicated community members who have worked tirelessly for more than twenty years to develop and propose the lahar escape “Bridge 4 Kids”. As I understand it, the latest concept would be a one-time use, hanging suspension bridge with steps. It would be anchored in the valley on this side and up on top of the plateau on the Tehaleh side. The estimated cost would be $ 40-50 million. The city’s insurer, RMSA, of the Association of Washington Cities has indicated to us that the insurance premium for this bridge would be approximately $100,000 per year.
We recognize that everyone’s goal is to save as many lives as possible if the worst case scenario should ever happen; and I believe it’s time for some frank discussions of more than one way to accomplish this goal. Any city action on this strategy would include public meetings and City Council deliberations.