Mount Rainier didn't really erupt in May - and it's a good thing.
Had the volcano roared to life, up to 5,000 people would have perished under smothering flows of mud. More than 9,000 homes and businesses would have been destroyed or damaged, with the financial toll exceeding $10 billion. The concrete-like slurry that thundered off the mountain would have ripped out every bridge across the Puyallup River from Orting to downtown Tacoma, sweeping away cars filled with people trying to flee the valley.
This grim scenario was generated by the most extensive eruption drill ever conducted in the United States - and very likely, the world.
In mid-May, nearly 100 community leaders, cops, firefighters and government officials from across Pierce County gathered in Virginia under the guidance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a computer-simulated disaster drill. It was their chance to test their disaster plans against the mountain's might.
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Jody Woodcock, spokeswoman for the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management, said the department applied for the specialized training in 2000. The area was chosen, she said, because it is home to a unique hazard - an active volcano close to population centers.
The volcano won the make-believe round, but the lessons learned will help the region better prepare for the real thing, said Steve Bailey, Pierce County's emergency management chief.
"We learned a lot, but we have a ways to go, " he said. "The only way you can find that out is through this kind of exercise."
Most of those who "died" in the mock drill didn't make it to safety because escape routes quickly became gridlocked. Confused over who had the authority to sound the alarm, officials were slow to start evacuations.
"We evacuated just minutes before the thing went off, and that's too late, " said Puyallup Fire Chief Merle Frank.
The volcano drill simulated a worst-case possibility: a massive mudflow, or lahar, with little warning. If that happens, even the best-laid plans won't be able to prevent loss of life, Bailey pointed out.
"You're talking about 30,000 people in the valley, " he said. "We won't be able to get all of them out."
If the mountain signals its unrest well in advance - as geologists believe it probably will - the goal will be to move everyone out of harm's way. It won't be easy, and it may not be possible, Bailey acknowledged.
But with new insights from the eruption exercise, officials across the county are fine-tuning evacuation plans, preparing a public education campaign and making other preparations for the day the mountain reawakens.
"Right now, if the sirens went off, I don't think we're as ready as we can be - or need to be, " Frank said.
May 16, 11:33 a.m. - Volcano alert issued by the U.S. Geological Survey. Intense bursts of shallow earthquakes on Mount Rainier followed by rapid ground deformation overnight. Growing lava dome spotted inside the crater. "Explosive eruptions could begin at any time, " said geologist William Scott.
It's a maxim of emergency management that a plan isn't worth the paper it's written on until it is tested.
FEMA's exercises are considered the ultimate test - the Super Bowl of emergency management drills.
The agency assembles the players at a complex called Mount Weather, tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains, 70 miles west of Washington, D.C. The facility is most famous as the site of an underground city from which the president and other top officials could run the government in case of atomic attack.
The calamities FEMA simulates at Mount Weather include earthquakes, train wrecks, hurricanes and hazardous-waste spills. Mount Rainier is the only volcano the agency has taken on, and the consequences of an eruption are also in a different league.
"The size of what you're dealing with here - it's probably the largest disaster the United States is ever going to see, " said Al Lenzini, a California emergency response expert and part of FEMA's faculty for the drill.
Participants ranged from radio dispatchers to mayors, from fire chiefs and utility managers to public information officers and school administrators.
With its historic downtown, fairgrounds and government facilities square in the path of past mudflows, Puyallup sent the biggest delegation: 13 people. Orting, which sits closest to the mountain, sent no one, primarily because the leadership of its fire department is in flux.
12:18 p.m. - USGS reports a large seismic signal from Mount Rainier. Geologists suspect a possible landslide triggered by magma movement. Summit is obscured by clouds.
The drill was strictly table-top; that is, the participants were all indoors, using computers, phones, radios, white boards and maps. But the fact that no fire engines or rescue helicopters ever switched on their engines didn't diminish the intensity.
"Even though it was a game, I could really picture it happening, " said Joe Caron, a supervisor for Pierce County's Law Enforcement Support Agency who worked as police dispatcher in the exercise.
USGS geologist Carolyn Driedger said the exercise felt so authentic that it brought back uncomfortably vivid memories of Mount St. Helens' eruption and the death of one of her colleagues.
The realism was the work of FEMA's Al Fluman, who orchestrated the event with the briskness of a drill instructor and the dramatic flair of a movie director. Fluman likes to joke that he's destroyed more than 200 communities in his nearly two decades as the agency's maestro of mayhem.
To craft the most detailed scenario possible, he spent a week in Pierce County. He drove the entire Puyallup Valley, inspected evacuation routes and conferred with geologists and local officials.
The result was a 64-page script with 401 specific incidents - from mudflow sightings to power lines toppling and car wrecks blocking traffic.
12:20 p.m. - The order goes out to evacuate Orting.
Sequestered in a small command center, Fluman and 16 other "controllers" were the puppet masters pulling the strings throughout the two-day drill. Playing the roles of politicians, reporters and citizens, they bombarded the drill participants with telephone calls requesting updates, interviews and help.
They also acted as police, fire and military units in the field, radioing in reports, then pretending to respond to directions from the people taking part in the exercise.
Grouped in three large rooms, the participants received information from the controllers, then decided how to respond.
The result was controlled chaos. Fire dispatchers sent fictional engines to staging areas and accidents. Law enforcement managers directed make-believe officers to oversee the evacuation. Hospital administrators monitored bed space, school officials ordered buses to pick up children and Red Cross workers set up shelters. Politicians wrestled with policy decisions, such as emergency declarations, and fielded calls from panicked residents.
A mock television station added to the tension, with regular news bulletins updating the situation and issuing public warnings.
12:27 p.m. - Evacuation order extended to the entire Puyallup River Valley. Within minutes, roads are jammed with cars.
In a real volcanic crisis, the most difficult decision will be when to clear people out of the valley, Bailey said. Geologists will never be able to predict precisely when the volcano will go off. If people are evacuated too soon, and nothing happens, they will begin clamoring to go back to their homes.
But, as the participants in the drill learned, when the evacuation order is delayed too long, the results could be much worse than public grumbling, he said.
12:30 p.m. - Instruments in the upper Puyallup and Carbon river valleys detect the rumbling vibrations that signal an immense mudflow about 30 minutes away from the town of Orting.
Frank, the Puyallup fire chief, was in the middle of evacuation decisions during the exercise. The top policy-makers were waiting for the group in charge of field operations to start the process, he said. But the operations group didn't think it had the authority to make the call.
"We were asking: When are you going to evacuate this thing?" Frank said.
In retrospect, it's clear the decision didn't come soon enough, Bailey said. And that made for an excellent learning experience.
"It really dawned on people during this exercise that you can't just say: 'Evacuate' and 15 minutes later it's done, " Bailey said.
12:35 p.m. - Emergency alert issued advising all people in Orting to leave their cars and move to higher ground immediately.
Another hard reality pointed out in the exercise is that people who can't fend for themselves will be in trouble if the volcano goes off without much warning.
Participants were flooded with calls from controllers pretending to be elderly and bed-ridden people pleading for someone to come and evacuate them. Nursing homes were also requesting buses to move residents to safety.
But Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said policies are clear on that point: No rescuers will be sent into the valley unless it's certain they will have ample time to get back out.
"We have to save whoever we can, but we won't send people in to die."
1 p.m. - Observers on the bluff above Orting report a wall of mud 100 feet high roaring toward the town. A few moments later, Orting is obliterated.
Not only did Fluman craft a scenario with minimal warning, he also threw in confounding snags, such as car pileups on crowded bridges and a toxic tanker spill. The latter was located on I-5, near the spot where evacuees on Highway 512 were being funneled onto the freeway.
Traffic problems in the drill were horrendous as a result - but there's no reason to believe they won't be almost as bad in a real evacuation, said Tom Miner of the Pierce County Sheriff's Department.
Planners expect a line of cars 40 miles long snaking out of the valley, and accidents would be inevitable.
Miner is now leading an effort to revamp the evacuation plans and plug holes revealed in the exercise.
1:30 p.m. - The roiling mud bears down on Sumner and Puyallup, smashing bridges and engulfing everything in its path.
An emergency alert directs people in both towns to get out of their cars and run for higher ground.
Among those holes, Miner said, is the fact that once people reach safety, they're likely to stop their cars to look back at the valley, jamming up traffic behind them. "We need to figure out how to keep them moving."
The drill also identified problem spots, where evacuees are supposed to be directed onto already-crowded streets.
The county's evacuation plans call for all of the major roads leading out of the valley to be converted to one-way traffic. Based on results from the drill, that's also going to be tough to accomplish, Miner said.
"We have to look more closely at that. All it would take is one person turning (the wrong way) to stop traffic."
1:50 p.m. - Heavy mud wipes out the I-5 bridge over the Puyallup River Valley. The mud continues to race across the Tacoma Tideflats, shoving over large fuel tanks and burying Tacoma's sewage treatment plant.
Coming soon after February's earthquake, the volcano drill was well-timed to catch the attention of public officials, said Tacoma City Manager Ray Corpuz.
To keep that level of concern high, Corpuz hopes to have annual meetings with all the groups involved in the drill.
"Without meetings like this, there's a tendency to put this issue on the shelf, and tell yourself: 'It may not happen in my lifetime, '" he said.
Working with local governments, Bailey and the USGS will be launching an educational program this fall to make sure families, businesses and care facilities have evacuation plans and know the best way to get out of the valley.
8 a.m. May 17. Damage Assessment. Mud levels: 30 feet in Orting; 20 feet in Puyallup and Sumner; 10 feet in the Port of Tacoma. Scores of people trapped on roofs. Power lines down and sewage plants destroyed in the valley. Nearly 11,000 displaced people crowded into shelters.
Though the drill revealed some glitches, Pierce County's volcanic response plan is considered among the best in the world - a model that other countries are beginning to follow, Bailey said.
Thanks to the FEMA exercise, it's also been more thoroughly tested than any other plan.
But even the most sophisticated exercise falls far short of the ultimate test, Bailey acknowledged.
"We'll never really know until it happens."