Image: Orting volcano evacuation sign
Ted S. Warren  /  AP
A sign marking the volcano evacuation route stands in Orting, Wash., next to new homes being built as part of the "River's Edge" housing development. The growing town of 4,500 has sirens in place to warn of the avalanche of mud and debris that could sweep through the town if Mount Rainier erupts.
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updated 5/17/2005 4:10:42 PM ET 2005-05-17T20:10:42

In the shadow of Mount Rainier, people go about their lives — going to shop, going to school, going to work. One day, though, the routine will be broken by a rumble that sounds like a thousand freight trains. If all works accordingly, sirens will alert the 4,400 residents that they have less than 45 minutes to evacuate — or be buried by an avalanche of mud and debris tumbling off the flank of the 14,411-foot (4,392-meter) volcano.

Scientists know Mount Rainier will eventually awaken as Mount St. Helens did in 1980. It could gradually build up and explode, or part of it may collapse. It could happen in 200 years, or it could happen tonight.

"People get burned by these kind of events because they think it can't happen in their lifetime," said Willie Scott of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The agency ranks Mount Rainier as the third most dangerous volcano in the nation, after Kilauea on Hawaii's Big Island and Mount St. Helens. Both are currently active.

Or is it the most dangerous?
Other studies call Rainier the most dangerous volcano in the world — not just for its explosive potential, but because of the 3 million people who live in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan area. At least 100,000 people live on top of Rainier mudflows that have solidified.

Mudflow poses a serious threat for Orting. Two rivers drain off the mountain, hug the town and converge just beyond it, putting Orting squarely in the mountain's strike zone. The town, in fact, was built atop a 500-year-old mudflow that buried the valley 30 feet (9 meters) deep.

Image: Mount Rainier and Tacoma
Lyn Topinka / USGS
Mount Rainier looms over Tacoma, Wash., in a 1984 photo taken from the shore of Commencement Bay.
Construction crews working on new housing developments for Orting's growing population have dug up massive tree stumps — remnants of a forest buried there the last time Mount Rainier rumbled.

Yet, the risks did not worry Dawn So when she moved here two years ago. She was just looking for a good place to raise her children and open a quilting store.

"I wanted to have my kids in a better school district, a smaller town," she said. "I like to let them play in the front yard without having to worry about them."

Her family has planned its escape routes, and she's confident they could get to high ground in time. She does not, however, spend much time thinking about Rainier's threat.

"It's such a highly improbable situation," she said. "Disasters can happen wherever you're at."

Planning for a big blast
The risk of catastrophe every couple of thousand years has not stopped brisk development, either. But as scientists identified Rainier as a threat in the decades after Mount St. Helens' eruption, government officials and citizens have begun preparing.

Most of the mudflows — also called lahars — from Mount Rainier were triggered by an eruption, Scott said. But the most recent, the Electron mudflow that buried Orting 500 years ago, did not seem to follow that pattern.

"Maybe it was just a gradual weakening," Scott said. "That one sort of keeps us honest."

Federal, state and local officials gathered last week at Fort Lewis for a simulated emergency response exercise. Later this month, Orting schools will practice a drill familiar to most students by now — evacuating and walking two miles (3 kilometers) to higher ground.

Building a bridge
For years, Chuck Morrison has lobbied to have a path and bridges built so students can head to a bluff about a half-mile (kilometer) away, rather than travel across town for cover. This year's state budget includes $1.7 million to start planning the project.

A Tacoma resident, Morrison made the pedestrian bridge his crusade after falling in love with Orting's railroad history and scenic beauty. He understands what draws people to a volcano's backyard.

"This place is gorgeous," he said, standing on the edge of the town square, the mountain shrouded by clouds behind him.

Though some locals have welcomed Morrison's activism, others roll their eyes.

"Don't keep talking about that mountain! I'm sick of hearing about it," said 69-year-old James Nunnally, who'd rather see money spent on roads to handle Orting's growing number of commuters.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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