Emergency preparedness has garnered increased attention over the past decade in response to natural disasters whose magnitude has wreaked havoc – and, in some cases, devastated entire communities.

“The key to disaster preparedness is education; a well-informed citizenry is the best mitigation strategy for any disaster,” says Quince Mento, Head of the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) recently proclaimed January 2010 Volcano Awareness Month.

According to Jim Kauahikaua, HVO Scientist-in-Charge, “Volcanoes are an integral aspect of life in Hawaii …. Hawaiian volcanoes create, but they can also destroy.” So, he says, people who choose to live on the island must learn to live in harmony with the dynamics of its ever-changing landscape. “Awareness, as well as preparedness, is essential to living with our volcanoes.”

He explains that volcanic activity produces both positive and negative consequences. On the upside, active lava flows produce spectacular beauty and drama – and volcanic soils help grow flowers, coffee, and other agricultural products. But ongoing eruptions pose a threat to air quality. And lava flows can destroy homes, roadways, and property.

“… a well-informed citizenry is the best mitigation strategy for any disaster.” – Quince Mento, Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency

“We want both residents and visitors to be aware of Hawaii Island’s active volcanoes and to instill a sense of personal responsibility to learn more about how the volcanoes work and what hazards they pose,” says Janet Babb, HVO Public Information Officer and Outreach Geologist.

“That way, before an eruption occurs, people can make wise decisions–for example, where to build important facilities such as housing subdivisions, hospitals, and schools–and prepare for potential hazards posed by a volcano. Then, during an eruption, people will know the appropriate actions to take in response to the hazards, thereby, minimizing risks to life and property.”

While the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory created the Volcano Awareness initiative, Quince Mento says that Hawaii County fully supports the efforts of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory public awareness initiative. Like tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricanes, volcanoes have affected Hawaii in the past, and must be kept on the radar, he says.

Hawaii is not alone in its vulnerability to volcanic activity; according to the USGS, there are 169 active volcanoes in the United States. Volcanoes are being monitored in Alaska, California, Oregon, and throughout the western part of the country.

The summit of Mount Rainier, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, is topped by two volcanic craters. Mount Rainier, located just 55 miles from Seattle, Washington, is purported to be the most dangerous volcano in the Cascades – because of the large population in its vicinity and its massive area and volume.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is the federal agency that collects, monitors, analyzes, and provides scientific understanding about natural resource conditions, issues, and problems.

The USGS uses a four-tiered approach to characterizing the threat of volcanoes: Normal, Advisory, Watch, and Warning. At the time of this writing, no U.S. volcanoes were at the Warning level; however, the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii is currently at Watch level.