Lethal muds Aug. 13, 2020

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Muddying the Record

On the Rocks – The Woodstock Times Dec. 31, 1998

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


We scientists see hurricanes as lifeless, soul-less entities, and we are right. But there are other viewpoints. Some Animist religions might see them as having souls, the souls of evil spirits of course. In a primitive culture, living on the edge of nature, that can be easy to believe because hurricanes can behave as mean spirits. Few were ever worse than this autumn’s Hurricane Mitch which brought not just catastrophe to central America, but a form of slow, seemingly premeditated catastrophe befitting an evil spirit.

Mitch approached the Coast of Honduras and stalled offshore for three days. That allowed time for the waves and tides to build up on the coasts of that poor nation. It was like a military invasion. After softening up the coasts, Mitch assaulted. For five agonizingly long days the storm meandered across central America, first Honduras, then Guatemala and finally southern Mexico. That ugly hurricane was in no hurry, in fact it was incredibly slow. During its journey, about 50 inches of rain came down, more rain in five days than we get in a year and a half. With its heavy rains and strong winds, this storm’s “mean spirit” was that of a predator, catlike in its killing. Like a cat it slowly, methodically, almost lovingly obliterated some of the poorest communities of the region.

In the highlands Hurricane Mitch’s waters were extremely erosive, scouring out canyons and washing away villages and bridges. Great masses of mud quickly glutted local stream channels. Downstream those many gluts of mud coalesced and advanced as enormous terrifying and killing mudflows. The cold, wet masses rushed down canyons at the speed of an automobile.

No area was worse than the slopes of the Casitas Volcano in Nicaragua. This long extinct Volcano, with its rich soils, had supported agricultural communities for ages. Many villages dotted its slopes, especially along the small stream that flowed south from the summit. At the volcano’s peak there was a large crater. With the heavy rains, the crater filled up and eventually overflowed as a flood. The flood waters rushed down the small canyon and picked up great masses of mud. Soon there was muddy water, then there was watery mud.

From the air, pilots reported that the Casitas mudflow looked like a brown lava flow. It flowed down the canyon and was soon 1500 feet across and eventually ten or more miles long. It flowed across two high mountain villages, one more village farther downslope, and several smaller habitations. Burial was in a matter of a minute or so. In the end about 30 square miles of Nicaragua were under thick layers of mud. In the end, also, about 2,000 people died.

Mudflows are horrible killers. They advance at speeds no one can escape. They engulf villages with little or no warning. Death in a mudflow must be an awful fate. The speeding currents of cold mud strip still-living humans of their clothing and then smother them. Some bodies are contemptuously spit back naked to the surface; most are left buried forever. There is talk of marking the Casitas location as a national cemetery.

These awful events are not confined to far-away places, they have happened here, but only in the very distant past. High in the Catskills you can climb and see what is left. Travel to the Central Escarpment of the Catskills and hike the slopes of Indian Head, Twin, or Sugarloaf Mountains. Below 2,800 feet in elevation, the strata are a mix of red shales and brown sandstones. These are old fossil floodplain soils and river channel deposits. Above 2,800 feet the strata are different. There the strata are thick masses of coarse gray sandstone. Within the sands are many bits of gravel. Not all, but many of these thick strata are old mudflow deposits. Those flows descended the slopes of the old Acadian Mountains of nearly 400 million years ago. The old muds have hardened into fine ledges of rock with magnificent vistas of the wild central Catskills landscape. It is ironic that such awful events of the past should give us such beautiful views today.

We geologists are not Animists, we know that our rocks do not have spirits, but if we are wrong and they do, then there are many evil spirits up there in the higher Catskills.

  Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

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