News

Bright idea for lahar warnings

A group of four girls from Federal Way is on a mission to make the South Sound area safer.

The girls aim to install LED lights on volcano evacuation signs in the Puyallup River Valley. They came up with the idea back in September while working on a science project at Brooklake Christian School in Federal Way.

Their dream is becoming close to a reality. The girls are finalists in a contest sponsored by the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation. If they win, they will receive $25,000 to implement their plan.

The girls — Hannah Zeitler, Alyssa Wolf, Sara Yazdi and Jordyn Wintersole — call themselves the LOST group, short for Lights On Sign Technology.

They will spend this week at Disney World in Florida, competing for the winning prize. As one of eight finalists, the team won an all-expenses paid trip to the entertainment park.

Their coach and former teacher, Sharon Gentry, decided to enter the contest because she thought the prize would motivate the students. The contest encouraged middle school children to use the scientific method to solve a real-world problem in their community.

The girls, riding in a car near Orting, considered the volcano evacuation signs.

"We noticed that the volcano evacuation signs weren't really visible," Yazdi said. "They were, like, hiding behind tree branches."

They brainstormed ways to draw attention to the signs when Gentry pointed out the LED lights on a stop sign.

Then they had their idea: Installing LED lights on evacuation signs.

The girls created a wooden border with lights to fit around the edge of the sign. They tested their project at Celebration Park.

An earthquake or a volcanic eruption could cause a lahar, a swift-moving mudflow from a volcano carrying rocks and debris. To survive, people would need to evacuate to high ground quickly.

During a lahar, getting lost or being unfamiliar with the evacuation route could cost a person his or her life, Wolf said. The area would likely lose power and it would be dark. The LED lights on signs would be solar-powered and visible for up to 2 miles.

The LED lights would remain lit all the time, familiarizing people with their location. The lights would flash during an emergency, activated by a radio signal.

Preparing for a lahar in the path of Mount Rainier is important, Wolf said. The last major lahar was 550 years ago.

"Scientists say there's a major lahar every 500 to 1,000 years," she said.

The girls will find out if they win the $25,000 grant on June 21. If they win, they will have one year to implement their plan. They would work with representatives from the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation to finalize their project and find a company to install the lights.

"Obviously we think our idea is the best," Wolf said.

If the girls don't win, they plan to apply for different grants to install the lights. They hope their idea becomes an international symbol for disaster evacuation signs.

Contact Margo Horner: mhorner@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

The LOST team received letters of support from State Senator Tracey Eide, State Representative Mark Miloscia, Governor Christine Gregoire, Orting Mayor Cheryl Temple, Orting School District Superintendent Jeff Davis, State Representative Skip Priest, Pierce County Emergency Management Director Steven Bailey and Federal Way Mayor Mike Park.

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