Saturday, June 5, 2010


One scary aspect to being in this kind of volatile situation is the politics at play behind the scenes. While we like to believe that our fellow human making the important decisions will do the best for all humankind concerned, maybe that's not always the truth.

Case in point - the last major evacuation of Baños in 1999. The army marched into town, giving residents one half hour to get everything together and get out. The Baneños , probably scared out of their minds at the uncertainty of the situation (it was the first time Mama T had been active in a very long time), trustingly complied. And while there homes were left empty for 3 months during the evacuation, the army - who are there to protect and serve the people - looted them, right down to taking the animals out of their yards.

These are different times. Image is king, especially for this small town that thrives on the tourists it brings in - nobody wants the kind of bad press that that sort of escapade would bring. While all eyes of the world can be on the happenings of Baños with a flick of TV channels or a quick google search, what image does this mayor of the town want to project?

That everything is fine, of course. That the active volcano smoldering just a few kilometers away is just a nuisance, and not a menace. In fact, it's not even a nuisance, it's a tourist attraction! Come see hot red lava spewing nightly!

And the scary politics at play here? The mayor is not just the mayor. He is also the head of the COE (Committee Of Emergency). The same person who does not want to hurt the image of this tourist town is in charge of making responsible safety decisions on behalf of it's residents. It is not a stretch of the imagination, then, to believe that perhaps his hand rests a little lighter on the evacuation-siren-button - if the town is empty, how can tourism dollars be made?

Thankfully, there is a higher power at play here who seems to be acting with more concern and caution. The governor of this small province of Tungurahua has been stocking the local refuge point with mattresses, food and water. He is watching closely, and has the power to call it as he sees it, over the head of the mayor. There is apparently a long-standing power struggle between these two that perhaps is coming to a head during this crisis.

The result, this casual observer believes, played out in one small form yesterday. At 11:36 am, the sirens blew. There was no panic, we all knew it was coming - it was a "simulated" evacuation of the town. The COE organized it to measure the time it would take to get all of the residents to the refuge.

There are so many things wrong with that. First of all, gringos were not obliged to participate. We sat and watched as scores of school children and others ran through the streets out of town. And like good little tourists, we sat with our cameras ready.

View out our window of the evacuation path

What if the need for a real evacuation was suddenly upon us yesterday? The alarms would blow, and the gringos would have gone nowhere, expecting it was only the simulation. Not only that, but the residents would likely not have grabbed their emergency-to-go bag of valuables, or not even taken it seriously in the first place - leaving them to the same fate as us.

Okay, so none of that happened, and everyone is safe. And now the COE is armed with some valuable information in the need of a real emergency. And the residents maybe are all a little more confident in what to do in a real emergency. These are all good things.

But it is also not a stretch to believe that the potentially erroneous decision to have the simulated evacuation is perhaps a one-up-manship from the mayor back to the governor. Look, I care about my peeps. I'm doing progressive things to protect them in a bad situation. I am a fellow human doing what is good for humankind.

We can hope that this last sentence is sincerely true. Because as the volcano roars again this morning, political chess likely continues to be played, with the residents of Baños as the pawns. But as long as the trend continues to be that decisions are being made to measure and ensure the safety of the residents, then we can all rest in Mama T's shadow for another day.

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