On the Philippine island of Luzon in late spring of
1991, most people’s attention was focused on typhoon (hurricane) Yunya. On June
13, Yunya roared across the island with 120 mph winds. Twelve miles from Mt.Pinatubo, work at the Dizon copper mine continued in
spite of the storm. Also, several steam eruptions had been observed on the
nearby volcano. Occasionally, workers heard a low rumble coming from underground.
Hours later, with hurricane rain still hitting the island, the mountain exploded. An entire cubic mile of ash, lava and rock debris flew into the air. The ash cloud rose to a height of 22 miles, more than doubling the height of the hurricane. Heavy rain continued, now turning ash and debris into deadly mudflows. The mud moved at speeds up to 40 mph, overrunning entire villages. Even today, the Santo Tomas River flows over a massive bed of volcanic mud. Near Mampaen, 12 miles from the crater, building tops are still standing out above the mud and lake water.
Family members on the island kept Brenau professor Joel Aquino, Ph.D., current about the events. “At the Dizon mine, they had no way to escape,” he said. “When the heavy ash started coming down on the hut along with the rain, they quickly placed extra timbers to support the roof. Some worried that the hastily placed beams wouldn’t carry the weight. So they pried a Coke bottle between each beam and the ceiling. If the bottle collapsed, so would the roof. It didn’t.” The mine workers survived a couple of days in pitch black, disorienting conditions, simultaneously riding out a hurricane and a giant volcanic eruption.
Farther west, at Subic U.S. Navy Base, Gainesville’s flying legend Bill Rogers was in a similar huddle. “Planes couldn’t fly because the ash clouds would immediately wreck the engines,” Rogers recalled. “Nobody really knew what to do, so we stayed put and watched the mud outside turning into concrete.” Some smaller buildings collapsed, but there were no casualties on the navy base.
The 1991 Yunya-Pinatubo combination taught a lesson. People proposing to “blow up” a hurricane with atomic bombs are ignorant of the fact that Pinatubo tried this with its 70-megaton blast. That explosion was bigger than any atomic bomb ever detonated. Yunya was not impressed. Neither would Dorian be, or any other storm heading for Florida.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.