As Cotopaxi awakens, Quito and its suburbs get ready for a volcanic eruption
By Greg Scruggs
QUITO, Ecuador — Until recently, the giant snow-capped volcano known as Cotopaxi was Quito’s quiet neighbor — a dramatic photo op for tourists and locals alike, as well as a playground for mountaineers who climb the iconic peak.
Then, last June, the mountain woke up from a 75-year slumber. Seismologists recorded hundreds of minor localized earthquakes, and Cotopaxi began belching sulfur dioxide and ash. The emissions were modest and not dangerous. But the plume from the volcano’s cone was clearly visible from Quito, just 55 km (34 miles) away, and hinted at the possibility of a larger eruption to come. Suddenly, the picturesque mountain had become a menace, the world’s most dangerous active volcano because it is so close to a major metropolitan area.
But Quito and its suburbs are a complex urban sprawl, layered into multiple valleys and sliced up by mountainous ridges. And Cotopaxi poses a bigger risk to some parts of that area than others.
In the valley where Quito sits and the majority of the region’s 2.5 million people live, a major eruption may cause logistical inconveniences, but would not threaten life and limb. A thin coating of ash could fall on the city, depending on which way the wind blows, and protective masks may become a must-have accessory. The international airport could shut down for a few days. And a major north-south highway could be closed. City officials are taking the risk seriously but not treating it as an existential threat.
The story is different in some of the southern suburbs closest to Cotopaxi, where a raging torrent of lava, mud and rocks known as “lahar” is likely to flow down the side of the mountain and could wipe away entire neighborhoods. In these places, an eruption will set off an evacuation race against the clock. The challenge will be to get as many people as possible — and in some cases, the livestock that sustains them — out of harm’s way.
Of course, Ecuador has a lot of experience handling volcanoes. Cotopaxi is just one of numerous active peaks along the country’s so-called “Avenue of the Volcanoes.” In fact, it’s only one of four volcanoes in the country in some state of eruption right now. While Cotopaxi’s awakening triggered a 60-day “state of emergency” in August, Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute — the go-to source for up-to-the-minute monitoring of the country’s 16 major volcanoes — has never issued an alert indicating that a serious eruption by Cotopaxi is imminent.
“We have had several volcanoes in eruption for years and we know how to live with erupting volcanoes,” says Maria Duarte, Ecuador’s minister for Housing and Urban Development. “More than any other country, we have the capacity for resilience when it comes to volcanoes.”
On a visit to Quito a few months ago, I went out to see what it means to prepare a major urban area for a potentially serious volcanic eruption. I toured one of the suburban danger zones close to Cotopaxi. Then I spoke with local leaders in Quito proper who came up with an innovative way to crowdsource disaster-prep ideas. What emerged was two very different portraits of preparation that may offer lessons to other cities around the world who have their own natural hazards to contend with.
‘Mercedes Benz of alert systems’
On the southern outskirts of Quito near the base of Cotopaxi is Sangolquí, a bustling and relatively prosperous suburb centered on a Spanish colonial plaza. It’s the capital of a larger local jurisdiction known as Rumiñahui and home to the Military Polytechnic School, one of the country’s best institutions of higher learning. Small streams bubbling downhill from Cotopaxi cut through the town, and the land near them has become coveted real estate. There’s even a shopping center called River Mall on the banks of one of the tributaries.
Diego Trujillo is responsible for Rumiñahui’s security. He met me on a Saturday at a military base in Sangolquí after a morning of target practice and horseback riding near polo grounds close by. Trujillo exudes a military leader’s confidence, though this former soldier wouldn’t go into details of his career — a friend who joined us hinted at special forces.
“We understood the situation and pushed the government and mayor to do a whole plan,” Trujillo says of Rumiñahui’s preparations for Cotopaxi. “The mayor allowed us to do whatever is needed.”
Trujillo took me to some of the neighborhoods that sit along the path of expected lahar flows. Based on historical evidence, geologists can anticipate how much lahar will overflow the banks of rivers and streams born on the volcano’s flanks. (The last major eruption occurred in 1877.) Local leaders have used this information to map out which houses are at risk and to plan for how to get the people living in them to safety. About 16,000 people in the immediate area live in danger zones.
In these areas, bright green lines are painted on the streets. The lines are a crucial element of the preparedness plan here. They point the way to higher ground, providing simple no-need-to-think-about-it wayfinding for people who, when the time comes to use it, may be inclined to panic.
When Cotopaxi erupts, sirens will immediately blare — people in Sangolquí will have about 45 minutes to get to safety. They will grab an emergency kit stashed by the door — residents are advised to pack essentials such as a protection mask, goggles, flashlight, water, and medications. Then, following a family plan they are supposed to have practiced numerous times, evacuees will walk out the front door and follow the green line to the nearest safe place — a park, plaza or other public space where up to a thousand people can congregate.
Trujillo imagines an orderly evacuation of military precision. He says the people in Sangolquí have practiced enough times to know exactly what to do. Schools run volcano evacuation drills. “Cotopaxi has changed the lifestyle for the entire community,” Trujillo says. Before June, “nobody thought about the risks.”
In addition to the green lines, Rumiñahui also developed a smartphone application to alert residents. Emergencia Cotopaxi provides detailed maps of risk areas and anticipated lahar flows, as well as features for users to send an SOS and report an emergency to authorities. (Several government sources say they expect cellular and data service to experience only minor interruptions in the event of an eruption.)
“We bought the Mercedes Benz of alert systems,” Trujillo says, likening the system in a poorer suburb nearby to a Chevy and the one in Quito to a Toyota. The Rumiñahui system consists of ten sirens and covers all eight risk zones in the jurisdiction so that, in theory, every at-risk resident will be warned. It is automated and will sound the alarm the moment monitoring devices detect seismic activity consistent with an eruption. The sirens in Rumiñahui are equipped with a better sound system than the ones in Quito and also feature flashing lights to warn the deaf.
A lot of planning has also gone into the aftermath of an eruption, Trujillo says. Lahar flows would be expected to finish within a few hours, and trained police will inspect houses to see which evacuees can return home immediately. Families with damaged homes are expected to live with relatives. Shelters will be available for those who need them, at least until they can be placed with strangers who have preregistered with a national ministry to host evacuees.
Still, there are numerous ways these plans could go awry, both during and after an actual evacuation.
As we drove through Sangolquí’s streets of densely clustered concrete houses and brightly painted roadside shops, Trujillo stopped his car at random. He rolled down his window to ask a pair of girls who were walking by and looked to be about seven years old if they had done a family drill recently. Yes, they replied — just last Saturday. This was the answer Trujillo wanted to hear.
But then he asked the girls if they have emergency backpacks ready. No, they said — the national government had downgraded its warning from “dangerous” to “cautious” and their mother doesn’t want to pack a bag until the government deems an eruption to be near.
“When the state of emergency ended, people got more relaxed,” Trujillo says, shaking his head. “The biggest risk is psychological. Complacency.”
Despite all the preparations, one question remains stubborn, if not outright taboo: Should the people whose homes are almost certain to be destroyed be permanently relocated? Trujillo says about 10 percent of those at-risk in his area, most of them elderly, are simply unwilling to leave. He says they consider their house their only asset, and they believe that without it, life is not worth living. In rural communities less than 90 minutes from Quito, giving up grazing land is likewise a non-starter for poor peasants whose livestock is their only means of income.
Nestled in a valley a safe distance from Cotopaxi, Quito may not be on the front lines of an eruption in quite the way Sangolquí is. But the volcano is still a hot topic of conversation in the capital — especially when plumes of ash can be spotted drifting over the ridges surrounding the historic city. At the Museum of Colonial Art, in a restored 17th-century building, a recent exhibit entitled “Volcano Avenue” featured contemporary photographs and historic paintings of the 30 volcanoes in mainland Ecuador.
Just a few blocks from the museum, the Quito Innovation Laboratory occupies another renovated colonial building in a former retirement home for priests. Known by its Spanish acronym, LINQ, the lab is a newly created arm of the municipality charged with finding innovative solutions to city problems. The dynamic director, Carolina Pozo, works from a laptop covered in stickers, mementos from civic hackathons and open-data conventions. Flanked by a coterie of young staffers educated overseas, Pozo speaks in the global language of tech start-ups. She likes to say LINQ’s goal is to “disrupt” the Quito municipal government.
Pozo was laying the foundation for LINQ around the time that Cotopaxi began smoking. She knew right away that one of the lab’s first projects would have to involve preparing for an eruption. She teamed up with an outfit called The GovLab at New York University to embark on a crowdsourcing effort to generate ideas for dealing with the volcanic threat.
What they came up with was a creative tool for marshaling global expertise quickly. In October and November, they held a dozen online meetings, each themed around a different aspect of disaster preparation, such as sheltering strategies or maintaining access to health services. The GovLab tapped its network of researchers and practitioners to recruit experts from around the world to attend the meetings; Pozo brought in key officials from city government to answer and ask questions. The 90-minute sessions, mostly in English and Spanish, were held using a video-conferencing tool called Zoom.
Pozo would start these sessions with a brief overview of the situation with Cotopaxi. Then through a structured but open conversation, the experts would offer ideas from their own experiences. Many of these experts from universities, think tanks, multilateral organizations and the private sector later followed up with Pozo and her team to figure out how ideas could be implemented.
“We had high expectations,” Pozo told me. “We liked that it wasn’t just crowdsourcing ideas, but crowdsourcing collaboration.”
Ideas that percolated through the process include building a platform where citizens can report their needs during an eruption over the web, smartphone app or SMS; and a version of the “Airbnb for refugees” that emerged during the European migrant crisis which could help connect Cotopaxi evacuees with hosts. These ideas supplement other preparations going on in Quito such as the installation of an early-warning alert system and efforts to safeguard Quito’s water supply, a small portion of which comes from glacial melt on Cotopaxi.
Pozo says these sessions allowed Quito to access vast amounts of expertise and good will without tremendous effort. “If we had wanted to contact any of the big organizations for help, it would take many calls to find someone who knows someone there, or sending letters,” she says. “One thing this does that is very, very valuable is it breaks the usual bureaucratic processes of requesting help.”
César Navas, who as Ecuador’s security minister is in charge of Cotopaxi response at the national level, is supportive of LINQ’s crowdsourcing efforts. In an email to me, he called it “a great contribution” to Quito’s preparedness efforts, although he also acknowledged “there is still some way to go.”
Not everyone in Quito was enamored of having distant experts weigh in on local affairs. Patricia Mothes, chief volcanologist at the Geophysical Institute, was dismissive when I asked her about it. “People who just drop in add more noise than we need,” she says.
In a few weeks, LINQ intends to launch a citizen reporting platform for Cotopaxi, loosely modeled on PorMiBarrio, an online tool developed by a civil-society group in Uruguay. Users will be able to report, for example, that their street lacks evacuation signage or early-warning sirens. They also can access local advice on how to create a family plan. Although developers for PorMiBarrio were not at the initial crowdsourcing sessions, LINQ’s team sought them out and worked closely with them to prepare their platform.
Once the platform is in place, LINQ’s team will monitor it closely for useful data that will help the city respond to citizen needs during and after an eruption. They also may look to expand the tool’s capacities over time. Pozo’s office applies an iterative process to what they build — another hallmark of tech entrepreneurs. With any luck, Cotopaxi will give them as much time as they need.
“We want to solve one problem at a time and validate this process,” Pozo says. “We want to be able to measure impact.”