Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Puyehue's 6-mile-high plume of ash. (Chilean Air Force photo)  

Although to us it seems much longer, it has only been ten days since we here in this region of Patagonia had what might be described as a “biblical” experience—one of those phenomena that can cause you to cower and whimper and cover your eyes in sheer fright, or for lack of anything more logical to do. It is one of those experiences that revives the true meaning of that overused adjective, awesome. This isn’t the “awesome” of, “Hey, that’s an awesome shirt!” Or even of, “Honey, I think you’re really awesome!” No, no. This is glassy-eyed, dry-mouthed, quaking in your boots, crapping your pants, falling to your knees with hands clasped awesome—burning bush, parting of seas awesome. I’m talking about the eruption of the Mount Puyehue volcano.
  The day of the eruption, my wife Virginia and I went to town—the ski resort of Bariloche,12 miles away—as we usually do on Saturdays, to do the weekly shopping. We left early because there were several other things we needed to do. It was a gorgeous autumn day in Patagonia, sunny and clear. We had lunch out, as we also often do, at our favorite family restaurant in town. We talked, as usual, with our favorite waiter, Fabián, chatting about this and that, nothing of consequence. Everybody was going about his or her business as usual and no one seemed to suspect that anything untoward was afoot.
We arrived back home a little before three, and after putting away our groceries, decided to have a nap. The sky was a little cloudy at home and there was a light haze over the mountains in the distance across Lake Moreno, but nothing out of the ordinary. Bariloche is in a transitional area, on a major lake, between the mountains and the steppes and its weather is often different from ours, since we are smack up against the mountains and in the midst of the forest, where it is often cloudy or rainy when the sun is simultaneously shining in town.
However, at four, we awakened to the sound of thunder so powerful and constant that it rattled the windowpanes. It was pitch black in the room and I awoke totally disoriented. So much so that I switched on the bedside lamp, looked at the clock and wasn’t at all sure whether it was four in the afternoon or four in the morning.
Both of us sprang out of bed, dressed hastily and ran to look out the window. It was dark as a moonless night and we could hear precipitation pounding the galvanized roofing overhead in what sounded like a torrential downpour, but louder than any we’d ever heard before. The constantly roaring thunder was disconcerting. In areas like ours, the surrounding mountains tend to attract thunderbolts like lightning rods, so it is very seldom that we hear thunder, a time or two each summer and never at this time of the year—late South American autumn—when temperatures are low.
Virginia switched on the patio lights, stepped over our three worried and whimpering “indoor” dogs and peered out into the darkness that the lights outside barely pierced.
"Oh, it's snowing!" she said.
"Hmmm, thunder and snow?” I said. “How odd, and it  doesn't seem cold enough.”
“But weird snow,” she added, “like little round things.” She sounded dubious.
"Like snow...but weird snow."
“Sleet maybe,” I said, as I too took position at the window. But even as I said this, I was unconvinced.
 There was nothing for it but to step out and do a skin test. When I did, the reality suddenly became clear. My shoes grated on the abrasive surface and I was immediately pelted with a dry stinging shower of grit that stuffed my ears, peppered by hair and seeped down my collar to chafe the skin on my back and chest. The air was close and stifling despite the low temperature. So much so that I instinctively cupped my hand over my mouth and nose to breathe. And immediately I knew: What was showering down on us—as if from a cosmic dump truck being unloaded from on high—wasn’t rain, snow or sleet, but a deluge of volcanic sand and ash.

Crushed structures and knee-deep ash and sand
at the Samoré Pass border crossing.
(Photo by Diego Puente) 

As soon as I gave Virginia the bad news, she switched on the local radio station and we heard the familiar voice of Bariloche commentator Carlos Calvo calling on the population to remain calm, stay indoors and stay tuned for further information and instructions. Neighboring Mount Puyehue, across the border in Chile had decided, he said, to wake up after a fifty-year slumber and when it had begun spewing its guts, the wind had brought all of its ashy, noxious breath our way.
For my part I was already putting on my rain jacket and cap (something to shed some sand and ash) and tying a bandana over my mouth and nose to brave the elements. As often happens to me in limit situations, my military training of forty years before was kicking in. Panic wasn’t an option. Practicality and survival demanded priority thinking. My instincts seemed to be in order since my first thought was to protect our only source of water—the three one-thousand-liter tanks fed by a spring-head waterhole located sixty yards uphill to the east.
On the way to the tanks, I stopped to coax the three “outside dogs” into my tool shed from their houses, where the thunder and sandstorm had driven them. Their doghouses, arranged so, there in the patio, resembled a tiny Alpine village like the ones portrayed in those glass ball souvenir paperweights, the ones you shake to make it snow. But this one looked as if some giant couple’s malicious toddler had shaken the daylights out of it, since from one end of the patio I could hardly make out the lines of the doghouses at the other, awash, as they were, in a blizzard of gray ash and sand. 
The surface of the waterhole was certain to be
laden with ash and the water in it with suspended sand.
These were our veterans, our aging Patagonian canines, who live outdoors the year round and are hardened to harsh conditions. But today, it was no mean feat getting them out of their shelters. Once I did, however, they were so terrified that they gladly accompanied me to the unaccustomed interior of the shed, where I barricaded them in. By the light of my flashlight, I saw that the water in their drinking buckets in the patio was choked with ash and sand. I made a mental note to take them fresh water as soon as I had taken care of ensuring that our own water source—and theirs—wasn’t contaminated.  Like the dogs’ buckets, the surface of the waterhole was certain to be laden with ash and the water in it with suspended sand.
I made my way across a growing carpet of ashy gray sand to the big double main gate. The bolt was so “breaded” with ash that it was hard to slide open and I stood there training my flashlight on it with one hand and jiggling it with the other while I felt the wind-borne sand biting into the back of my neck. As the main thrust of the volcanic storm passed over, I reached the three tanks, just on the other side of our fence under some beech saplings. I was still being assailed by a dense, stinging shower of grit, as if it were being thrown by the shovelful through a huge fan at my back, to the accompaniment of almost ceaseless thunder and distant blue flashes of lightning. Now, however, this was happening not in complete darkness but in an eerie burnt-orange twilight that ensued following the initial pitch dark blast of gas-belched weather.
Using my body to shield the tank containing the entry valve from the spring, so as to keep out as much ash as possible, I slid open the lid and peered inside with my flashlight. I was delighted to see that this tank (and therefore the other two as well) was full to the brim with clear, clean water, so that the float was holding the entry valve shut. Fortunately, since we had been away all day, the water level hadn’t dropped enough to require the valve to open. Now, with the wire and wire-cutters I had fetched from the tool shed when I herded the dogs in there, I fashioned a crude fastener to keep the float from dropping with the water level, thus preventing the tanks from taking on new water from the waterhole until things cleared up and I could assess the state of the source. I figured even if worse came to worst, we had a ten-day supply of water if we were careful.
Back at the house, so dust-powdered that I looked as if I’d been riding the range all day, I got food and water to the three dogs in the shed and shook off the ashes before going back inside and shutting us in with the rest of our pets. Other than switching their tails a little at the loudest claps of thunder, our six cats seemed oblivious to the external phenomenon. They seemed to think, “Okay, so there’s stuff raining down outside and its scary out there. But, who cares? We live indoors and in here, everything’s hunky-dory.”


I thought, “Why can’t I be more like a cat and worry when there’s something to worry about?”
The three “inside dogs” were easier to identify with. They continued to whimper and fret over the constant thunder until they finally decided to surrender to fate and went to sleep. (I learned later that the continuous thunder is the result of the extremely hot masses of gas and debris released by the volcano clashing with the cold mountain air outside, which causes an electrical discharge).
What the felines were mostly concerned about was the fact that we had let the fire in the woodstove burn out. Several of them gathered around it and lay there looking at it and then at us with an expression that seemed to ask, “So what’s up with the cold stove?” But until things slackened up outside, we didn’t dare lay a fire, for fear that the heavy Martian weather conditions would prevent the chimney from drawing. Instead, we got out a “new” electric space heater that we’d had stowed away in the closet ever since we’d bought it several years before, mounted it on its feet after practicing our code-breaking skills in order to decipher the Chinese to English how-to instructions, and fired it up.
Incredibly—if you were to judge by its dicey track record even in the mildest of weather—the local electrical cooperative managed to keep the power on throughout the entire night’s storm of sand and ash. So we whiled away the rest of the evening watching TV and pretending nothing was happening outside, until stress turned to exhaustion and we finally went to bed.
Even after torrential rain a thick layer remained.

The next day, a Sunday,  revealed a scene not unlike some of those in disaster films with titles like “The Morning After” or “Aftermath”. A light rain was falling, lending the sand and ash that had precipitated to earth a darker, even more somber tone of gray. A good two inches of it evenly covered everything—the picnic table in the patio, the patio flagstone and tiles, the flagstone steps and paths, the deck, the Michigan chairs still sitting on the lawn, Virginia’s car, my truck, and the roofs of the house and sheds.
From grassy green to sandy gray.
Gone was the green grass strewn with un-raked golden southern beech leaves. In its place was a terrain more akin to the windswept sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina or to the sparse-haired tiger grass and sand knolls near the Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan. The bright greenery of the live beeches, laurels and  radal and cypress trees had turned a dusty gray and, every time a breeze stirred, flung light gray dust and sharp grains of sand at passersby. Where the morning drizzle mixed with the ash on the windowpanes the result was the formation of droplets of thickish gray liquid not unlike the runoff from wet concrete.  The water in the lagoon below our house had turned a milky limestone green, which, next to the surrounding reeds that wore a cloak of gray mourning instead of their usual autumnal amber, looked almost festive by comparison. And a hike down to the sprawling Lake Nahuel Huapi revealed that even it had changed its hue from its usual deep blue to a bright watercolor turquoise. Overnight, the ever rough and rocky mountain road down to the lake had been smoothed over with a two-inch carpet of sand. And looking down from the high road to the village-like Barrio Don Bosco and the Carmelite monastery beyond and above it was reminiscent of a Medieval scene, since the little houses all appeared to have identical thatched roofs because of the smooth layer of sand and ash that upholstered them, while the usually green surface of the marshy land around them was now gray sand with some long grass and gray-dusted cane poking through here and there, giving the impression of poor land long overgrazed by “his lordship’s chattel”.
From rocky road to sandy.
That afternoon and the next day, things cleared up for a while and we set to work digging out. Out of our patio alone—a space of less than twenty square meters (215 square feet)—my wife and I swept, shoveled and hauled some thirty wheelbarrow loads of sand and ash, which gives you an idea of the dimensions of the phenomenon. My guesstimate is that the roof of the house alone had a good half-dump-truckload of sand on it, which two neighbors helped me remove. We also set about finding and clearing our storm drains, cleaning the spoutings and getting our vehicles out from under their sandy shrouds. Then there were the roofs of our two free-standing sheds to clear.
Then there were the shed roofs to clear.
Rain and wind cleaned the folliage.
 Nature often appears wise: The sandstorm was followed by several days of torrential rains and then high winds (up to 80 km—50 miles—per hour) that scrubbed the air and folliage and scoured the sandy ash from leaves and branches also helping to break up the dense plume traveling away from the volcano’s crater.    
Since the afternoon of “the big cloud” ten days ago, we’ve been learning to live with Puyehue. Wind direction and weather conditions have come to have new meaning. If we are downwind of the volcano, we can expect the air to hang with ash so thick that it looks like a constant stampede is going on. And if the wind changes, it’s like we’ve been given a reprieve. People who were always praying for a sunny day now pray for rain, because it pulls the ash out of the air and lays the choking dust that rises from the roads with the passing of every car.  On days when it doesn’t rain, we need to take the trouble to check the air filters on our vehicles and clean them with compressed air or change them before they clog up. We’ve learned to live with grit on the floor no matter how hard we try to keep it clean. We’ve also leaned by experience that the mix of rain and volcanic sand makes for an excellent conductor of electricity (who knew?) and therefore is prone to shorting out power transformers and bringing resulting power outages at any moment. And little by little we’re growing used to looking out the window and instead of seeing grassy green, seeing sandy gray.
The usually green forest floor is now choked with sand.
On radio and TV we’ve heard volcanologists, geologists, technicians, engineers, doctors and politicians opine. From some we’ve learned a great deal. From others we’ve learned to beware of disinformation and misinformation. We’ve learned, for instance, that over in Chile and even across the lake in Villa La Angostura, Neuquén Province, the public knew days in advance that this crisis was coming and were better prepared than we were, while locally, nothing was said. Though some local politicians are now trying to save face by blaming others and pretending not to have been informed, live here long enough and you’ll learn that ski resorts don’t like bad news. It’s bad for business. And any local commentator who tries to tell it like it is can expect to be shunned as at least a bad sport, when not a traitor, for saying anything to make people—read: tourists—believe that this could be a less than ideal place to vacation. In this case, such denial has been ostrich-like, with the “feel good” crowd hiding their heads in the sand (literally),  thinking that a phenomenon as big as this one might pass them by. In view of the aftermath, such wishful thinking is ludicrous (and irresponsible), since the ash clouds from Puyehue have not only caused flight cancellations all over the country and temporary closures at the two main airports in Buenos Aires, a thousand miles away, but have also affected air traffic as far west as Australia and as far north and east as Brazil and Uruguay. And there is still no confirmation of when airports in Patagonia will be able to reopen and return to normal operating schedules.
Meanwhile, long-distance bus companies are making hay while the sun doesn’t shine. The Chevalier bus line, for instance, had the uncommon promotional privilege of taking UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on a 500-mile trip in one of its executive coches, when the world government chief’s domestic flight between two major Argentine cities was canceled indefinitely.
We’ve also learned not to believe everything we hear and we’ve learned too that being provided with a microphone is enough to make some people feel like experts even when they don’t know their proverbial ass from their proverbial elbow. Like the “experts” who claimed the volcanic ash was toxic—testing by real experts has proven it’s innocuous and in my own case I can attest that, once settled, it has left the water in our spring-fed waterhole more crystalline than ever, by dragging any suspended algae to the bottom.  Or, take the physician who went on national TV to tell people that if fallout from the volcano had contaminated their water, all they needed to do was put four drops of bleach in each ten liters to make it safe. Fortunately, the first “experts” were wrong about the toxicity of the ashes, or the advice of the second “expert” might have been tantamount to mass murder.
Satellite image of the Puyehue eruption. (NASA photo).
 In the end, the fact is that, despite all of the knowledge gathered with regard to volcanoes, much of their behavior remains unknown and highly unpredictable. Those of us camped in Puyehue’s backyard can only hope that it has gotten most of this latest fit of anger out of its system and that the worst is over for us. No matter what happens, we’ll just have to get used to living with Puyehue for some time to come.