Life under the volcano

It’s something most Americans can’t really imagine. But, in countries like Ecuador with high levels of volcanic activity, life can change in a flash.

Geography professor Graham Tobin, who is an expert on natural disasters, and medical anthropologist and USF department chairwoman Linda Whiteford described on Thursday the social, economic and health impacts a volcanic eruption could have on a local population.

The professors joined forces with the Center for Disease Management and Humanitarian Assistance to present research Tobin and Whiteford had done in Ecuador on what Whiteford called the “prolonged exposure to chronic hazards.”

The lecture focused on all of the problems experienced by local Ecuadorian villages located near the base of Mount Tungurahua, a 15,000-foot active volcano that erupted in May 2002. Tobin said the two main provinces affected by the volcano were Tungurahua and Chimbarazo.

According to the professors, the main concerns for villagers below the volcano were relocation due to forced evacuations, health problems and the loss of their livelihood due to recent volcanic eruptions.

“The evacuations forced people to leave their homes, families, animals, livestock and their way of life, and they were forced to stay out of their community for a period of time,”Whiteford said.

Because of the threat of eruptions, many villages were forced to evacuate to Quimiag, a nearby village. Tobin said the evacuation was a plan devised by the Ecuadorian government and caused many problems.

“When we look at the impact of evacuations, there is a variety of things that can happen to a community,” Tobin said. “There’s economic difficulties, displacement issues, health issues and social disruption and family conflict issues.”

Whiteford said many health problems also arose because of ash from volcanic eruptions. He said that the volcanic ash not only caused many health problems among children, but also affected the livestock and agriculture, which is the livelihood of the villages.

Tobin and Whiteford said they have started to work closely with the Ecuadorian ministry of health, civil defense groups and the Ecuadorian government. They have made recommendations based on their three years of research in order to help with the evacuation problems, Whiteford said.

“If you have to evacuate people, do some long-term planning about how they get home, what happens when they get home, and how to protect them and their belongings,” Whiteford said.