Earthquake Typhoon Volcano - Trifecta during Pinatubo Eruption 1991 Aug 05,2017

Event Duration Dimensions ( 3 Weeks )

Trifecta – Earthquake, Typhoon, Volcano


So I thought I would share with you one of my survival experiences during the Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in June of 1991.  I was at Subic Bay Naval Station and we were about 40 plus kilometers from the mountain (as opposed to Clark Air Base which was more like 25 kilometers away).

First of all, we had plenty of warning that the mountain was going to blow.  They had a large USGS team out there monitoring the mountain to gather data.  The US Government was interested in this for two reasons – one, I think they were surprised at how Mt St. Helens had erupted so they were looking for more data and two, the US was negotiating for an extension of the base leases and eruption of the volcano could impact on both bases considerably. 

There were a couple of small but spectacular eruptions before 15 June which made the Air Force pull out of Clark and send everyone to Subic.  Everyone figured it would just be a temporary thing until they could return. 

And then the big one hit on 15 June.  There were plenty of small earthquakes up to this point but the intensity picked up as the mountain erupted in an enormous ejection of an estimate 10 cubic kilometers of ash.  At the same time, Typhoon Yulang/Diding was passing north of the mountain and the high winds and rain added to the chaos.  The eruption seemed to last all day and all night as earthquakes continued to roll through the area and ash and debris fell like a heavy grey snowfall.

Evacuations before the eruptions saved thousands of lives and less than 1000 people are reported to have died during the eruption.  I also want to mention that pyroclastic flows came down the mountain and changed the landscape, filling in valleys and clogging rivers.  And heavy rains after the eruption resulted in lahar flows that buried towns and made travel difficult (clogged roads or washed out bridges and roads).

Let me briefly go over the categories we use in Prepper Skills and ASP and see what lessons we can glean from this particular situation:


Shelter:  while many of the Filipinos had buildings constructed from light materials that collapsed under the weight of the ash (imaging six to 12 inches of sand accumulating on your roof), inside the base the construction was much sturdier.  Based on prevailing winds and the fallout from the first three eruptions, there was not a big concern about ash fall at Subic prior to the eruption.  We didn’t plan on a Typhoon swirling everything around.  I shared my room in the BOQ with an Air Force couple that I knew who had been evacuated to Subic.  Large buildings were more likely to fail under the ash fall load given the larger surface area of their roofs.  But these were mostly warehouses and commercial spaces.  If you stayed in your home with relatively small rooms, the danger of collapse seemed smaller.  Even so the Chief who let me safe haven at his place that night was pretty concerned about the roof collapsing during the night as earthquakes rolled through and ash continued to fall, by morning there was about six inches on my truck (yes, the paint job was ruined as we removed it).


•  Be prepared to take in refugees

•  Be prepared to repair your roof to keep you and your family out of the elements – temporary repairs first to limit damage, permanent repairs as soon as practical.

•  You may have to go out in the elements to clear the roof and reduce loads before the structure fails.  Think about how to do this safely.


Power:  the power went out as the generators air filters were clogged by the debris.  But at least the base had prime power generation that they got back in service in about a week as I recall.  The ash had knocked down some power lines which had to be replaced.  What did we do with no power in June in the Philippines – well we sweat a lot. 


•  Be prepared to do without certain modern conveniences after the event (in this case air conditioning) – your life style may change considerably!

•  You should have a back-up means of power for essential services. 

•  You may have to revert to 19th century methods of living if you don’t have power for 20th and 21st century appliances. 


Food and Water:  again, we were lucky inside the base as they had a lot of MREs.  Water was limited as the treatment plant shut down as they cleaned out the intakes.  We had to ration water for several days until the supply chain started deliveries.  Since the impact area was only really a couple of provinces, it was relatively easy to bring food and drink into the affected area from close by areas that were either minimally or unaffected.  We didn’t do a lot of stockpiling before the eruption although the base was surging to deal with all the people who had relocated from Clark.  I will tell you that personal hygiene degraded as you couldn’t use water for showering.  I went to the pool and took a bath one day.  That was a real morale boost.


•  Establish a food and water stockpile – three days should be a minimum but three weeks is a better target.  Food stocks need to be able to keep for this three-week period at room temperature (think canned good, dry goods, and freeze dried goods).  Since three weeks of water can be a lot, you should have a means of purifying drinking water as you go (this could be as simple as boiling water over a fire).


Medical:  related to rationing water, you could not use the indoor plumbing for urination, defecation.  The military set up some Johnny-on-the-spots as a temp solution.  Most of the town was just releasing their waste into the storm sewers before the volcano (we called the river that separated the base from the town “Shit River” it was black as tar or oil).  I do recall that the bay never looked so beautiful as all the ash falling into it had knocked every suspended solid out of the water column. 


•  Your personal hygiene habits will have to change.  Potable water use for non-portable uses will have to be curtailed.  Other than cooking and drinking, most of your water requirements are non-potable (shower, flush the toilet, etc).  You should plan for a field latrine that allows you eliminate waste without making a bio hazard minefield around your living area (not to mention preventing flies and other vectors from spreading disease using exposed waste).  You can wash up in a stream, a pond, a puddle but you may not get to shower or wash daily. 


Defense:  we didn’t see a break down in rule of law during this event other than some local looting of abandoned buildings.


Mobility:  If you had left your vehicle out in the ashfall and did not move it, there was a possibility it was stuck in the ash and had to be dug out.  Good news was that the ash packed down nicely and once you got up on top of it, it was easy to drive on.  During the storm, you have to remember that while the ash looked like snow coming down, it was essentially silicon sand.  Your windshield would get covered and you could not see.  The wipers were very effective at clearing the wind screen if there was no water. 


•  Movement during the event might be limited.  Plan to execute only essential moves that take you from certain danger to certain safety.

Mobility across country was severely affected by the lahar flows that knocked out bridged, buried towns and clogged streets and roads. As relief effort were bringing supplies into the affected area – traffic was heavy and several chokes points (where a bridge was out or other obstacles) resulted in some vehicles getting immobilized and only exacerbated the problem.


•  We all see the movies about the clogged roads before a catastrophe. You also need to be cognizant that mobility might be limited after an event.  Again, limit movement to essential moves only.  If possible, do a recon to confirm that the move is possible.  While this was an event that only impacted a local area, in a larger event the supply chain (including fuel) might be disrupted and you may not be able to fuel up along the way or resupply enroute.  Only execute those moves that you deem absolutely essential and that you can accomplish with the supplies you have on hand (unless you have confirmed fuel or other supplies are available along the route).


I have to confess that I did not take the situation very seriously at the time (I was still at that age when I considered myself bullet-proof) and there was not a lot you could do to run away from the volcano during the eruption.  The chief and I got a keg of beer from the Chief’s Club and settled in for the evening.  I will add one more object lesson to this article though.  The Chief’s wife and family did not come home that night, they holed up somewhere else.  This is the age before cell phones but he got more and more nervous as the night went on worrying about them.


•  If you can get a text through to your loved ones before the grid collapses, do it.  Make it a five point contingency plan (I am here, I will stay here or move to another place and wait to meet you there, if you don’t show by such and such time, I will do X, if you don’t see me by such and such time, you should do Y, if none of that works, I will do Z).  I have been in a lot of emergency situations where the cell network is overloaded and calls can’t get through, but texts usually will.

•  However in a real SHTF scenario the cell system may be down and not coming back for a long time.  You and your family should 1-keep each other informed of what you are doing all the time so in an emergency, they know where to start looking for you (or you for them).  2-have a good to hell plan:  everything went to hell, get your butt to the house or to the cabin or whereever you intend to re-assemble.  The family needs to know this in advance so in that event, you know where to start looking for your loved ones. 

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