San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. Geologist Warns Arenal Poses Imminent

IN the wake of an alarming study of the danger a large eruption would pose to the tourists and people who live around the base of the active Arenal Volcano, in the country’s Northern Zone, the Municipal Council of San Carlos this week approved a motion to review all construction permits granted in that sector.

The investigation of the permits is expected to determine if structures are planned in zones where lava and hot ash are most likely to flow, according to the Monday decision.

The National Emergency Commission (CNE) invited vulcanologist Robert Tilling, a member of the Volcano Hazards Team of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), to study the risk of an eruption and the capacities of the nearby hotels and resorts for an emergency evacuation.

Tilling conducted the study in November 2003 and submitted the report in the end of December.

SEVERAL years ago, the Emergency Commission coordinated a joint effort between two university-based geological  institutions and the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity, the result of which is a map of the probable danger zones around the volcano.

The map is a legal zoning plan that, since its publication in 2001, should have prohibited any new construction in the high-risk areas, according the CNE.

However, it has not been consistently enforced – one of the problems that Tilling’s report highlighted – and is the reason the Municipal Council decided to review all new construction permits.

“Any new construction in those zones must undergo a study of volcanic risk,” said Lidier Esquivel, Chief of Prevention of the CNE.

The map breaks the zones of risk into four levels, R1 through R4. R1 is the most likely to be devastated in a strong pyroclastic flow, and CNE recommends that it be free of all structures, roads, hiking trails and people. The high-risk area should be open only to scientific research and monitoring of the volcano.

The other three zones are considered de-escalating degrees of risk, but none should be the site of any new constructions.

BECAUSE the map was created only three years ago and the tourism industry has steadily grown during the last 10 years, there are resorts in those zones, even in the R1 high-risk area.

The most notable are Tabacón Resort and Hot Springs and Hotel Los Lagos. Esquivel said it is not possible, economically or politically, to move those resorts out of the R1 zone.

Tabacón has been threatened before. In May 1998, it had to evacuate its guests following a huge eruption and 23 volcanic avalanches that stopped one kilometer from its site. The CNE placed the area on Red Alert for 24 hours following the eruption (TT, May 8, 1998).

If relocation money were available from the government, those resorts would be moved out of the danger zone, according to Esquivel, but since it is not, they will remain until a better solution is available.

Meanwhile, no new structures may be built in the R1 area, rather, they must be built in safer zones, and could, in the case of the Hotel Los Lagos, migrate slowly out of harm’s way through additions.

NUMEROUS phone calls by The Tico Times to representatives of the Hotel Los Lagos and Tabacón Resort received no response. However, Francisco Vargas, head of public relations for Tabacón and president of the La Fortuna Chamber of Tourism, told Al Día after reading Tilling’s report that there will be more dialog and contact with CNE and other organizations that will help with development of emergency plans.

Fabio Cedeño, owner of the Hotel Los Lagos, told Al Día “It’s not a secret to anyone that Arenal is an active volcano, and tourists like to look at it… But, do you think it’s fair that, after all these years, someone comes to us and tells us to remove what we’ve made? Why didn’t they tell us before we made the investment?”

He said only 30% of the Los Lagos buildings are in the R1 zone.

“You can move hotel rooms or a restaurant, but the cost is huge. The state has to help with the investment,” he said.

THE Commission’s map is dotted with 36 hotels, hot springs, trails and lookouts, all within 5.5 kilometers of the volcano’s peak.

Tilling’s report warns that volcanic flows could sweep down the flanks of the volcano and destroy tourist facilities within five minutes of an eruption.

“It is imperative,” he wrote, “to allow the preparation of realistic mitigation measures, including rapid evacuations if necessary.

Tilling praised the creation of the land-use map, calling it “well-prepared” and on a “solid scientific foundation.” He said its legal backing makes it, perhaps, unique in the world.

Still, in some places it seems “inconsistent and illogical,” Tilling said, saying apparent political criteria influenced the creation of the zones. Though such a zoning plan must take into account the people who live in the area, the map should have been made after the area underwent a purely scientific volcano-hazards assessment, and thus not be tainted by economic or political factors, the U.S. geologist said.

ESQUIVEL said no political pressure was felt during the creation of the map, in the sense that politicians demanded to place zone boundaries in certain areas.

“A plan like this affects certain interests. There are estates in those zones,”

Esquivel said, but added he didn’t understand Tilling’s comment.

“I wouldn’t know where it comes from – the study was completely scientific,” he said.

Tilling said there are “no quick or easy remedies in reducing volcanic risk,” if the mountain continues to erupt. The volcano is one of the few in the world in a continuous period of activity.

Eruptions began in 1968 and are still ongoing, with large eruptions an average of two times every year, Esquivel said.

Esquivel said the businesses in the area have already started making evacuation plans and considering the possibility of a disaster as a result of the map and Tilling’s study.

TILLING recommended both shortand long-term measures for disaster prevention. In the short term, he said, the Emergency Com-mission should create a new topographic map on a much smaller scale, as well as a hazard-zoning map to assess the best evacuation routes and the likelihood of certain buildings being in the volcanic flow.

Esquivel said CNE should complete the detailed topographic map within four or five months.

CNE should better publicize their current land-use map, Tilling said, and also create a post for an Arenal-hazard specialist who would be an envoy to the public about the risks of the volcano.

Should the volcanic activity at Arenal die down and shift to another peak in the country, as it likely will at some point, that specialist could then take charge of safety in the other region, Tilling said.

ESQUIVEL said CNE plans to masspublish the map this year and will place 35 signs in the most-frequented areas around the volcano and delineate the danger zones within four or five months.

For more information or to get a copy of the map, call CNE at 220-2020 ext. 3, or e-mail The map also is available at the ArenalVolcanoNational Park office.

Tilling also recommended Costa Rican authorities improve their monitoring of the volcano and focus on better “real-time” observation to give people the most time possible to evacuate before or during an eruption.

He suggests observation will be easier if the existing geological institutions share their seismic data from the stations around Arenal. Currently they are independently operated. He also recommends that hotels and resorts stage drills to test their abilities to evacuate people quickly. He is skeptical that Tabacón Resort and others in the danger zones can remove their guests in less than five minutes.

IN the long term, within 10 years, Tilling suggests the maps be updated, the businesses in the R1 zone be removed, and that the area develop a region-wide contingency plan that would include the possibility of huge eruptions that the current landuse plan does not take into account.

CNE chose Tilling because he is known as one of the most experienced vulcanologists in the world, Esquivel said. He has worked with the USGS for more than 30 years around the world and has been published on the subject extensively.

Tilling volunteered his time for the study, asking only for payment of his expenses, Esquivel added.


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