Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ready for Redoubt? — Central Peninsula prepares for possible eruption

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Pilots, especially, remember the story from Mount Redoubt’s last eruption in December 1989.

A KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Boeing 747, with 231 passengers aboard, flew into an ash cloud spewed from Mount Redoubt at 27,900 feet. The tiny, abrasive ash particles choked the engines and all four quit, leaving the plane in a freefall two miles down.

The pilot was able to restart the engines and landed safely in Anchorage. The situation turned out for the best, but makes pilots remember to be prepared for the worst. That’s why if Redoubt erupts again — as the Alaska Volcano Observatory says it could at any time — they’ll be keeping a close eye on the ash, and keeping their planes on the ground if it comes too close.

Bob Widman, a senior pilot with Missionary Aviation Repair Center in Soldotna, said he remembers hearing about the KLM flight during Redoubt’s last eruption, while he waited out the ash fall on the ground.

“I remember it was just like having a dark black cloud come over the place, and cinders were falling. We basically couldn’t fly, the abrasion from the ash would be too great for the airplane,” Widman, of Soldotna, said.

The story was on his mind when Mount Augustine erupted in 2006, as well. He was flying back to the peninsula at night by the north side of Mount Iliamna, when flight services hailed him and said, “Do you realize that Augustine just erupted?” he said.

“Now, with the technology you’ve got with GPS, it showed wind out of the northwest, which was comforting, but it was dark out and we were looking around to make sure you can still see stars. If you flew through an ash cloud it looks just like a regular cloud. We turned the (engine) auto ignition on in case you went through anything, which is probably not much preventative medicine,” Widman said.

“So we wouldn’t fly unless the cloud was drifting a certain way. We certainly wouldn’t try to go anywhere near those because the dust you’re going to get, it’s probably going to damage a plane permanently. It’ll take the paint off it and if it gets into the engine compartment it could snuff out the engine,” he said.

Flying during ash fallout from a volcanic eruption can have deadly consequences. But even people safely on the ground can be significantly impacted by it. That’s why the central peninsula is getting ready in case Mount Redoubt erupts again.

Increased seismic activity led volcano observatory scientists to upgrade Redoubt’s color code to orange Sunday, meaning an eruption could be imminent. Seismic activity simmered down somewhat Monday, but code orange was maintained.

A heightened level of preparedness is being maintained, as well. Scott Walden, coordinator of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management, said OEM is in contact with the AVO, the Alaska branch of the National Weather Service and Homeland Security 24 hours a day while an eruption appears imminent.

“They not only give us current conditions, they also provide immediate modeling on weather to give me a good idea on ash fall, not only the thickness and density but the direction of travel,” Walden said.

If an eruption occurs and ash heads this way, the emergency alert system and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration radio alerts will be activated, AVO will issue informational updates and OEM will distribute information to local media sources, governments, police and fire departments, 911 dispatchers and the school district.

If it becomes necessary, OEM will set up a recorded phone line that’s updated with information throughout the day, and the emergency center will be staffed to answer calls, if need be.

But Walden points people to the Internet as the main source of information. AVO posts updates on volcanic activity at www.avo.alaska.edu. OEM’s Web site, www.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency, also posts volcano updates, and has a wealth of information on how people can prepare for an eruption, including checklists of supplies, and what to do during and after an eruption.

Walden’s biggest advice is to stay inside and off the roads.

“Back in ’89, what we experienced in the fire department in Kenai was some concern about health, with the elderly and people with respiratory illnesses, and higher occurrences of car accidents because when ash started landing on ice and snow it got very slippery.”

Not only is ash slick, it’s damaging to engines.

“It’s like pouring a small quantity of sand in your engine intake. The less travel, the better chance of your vehicle lasting. It’s very abrasive.”

Ash can also add significant weight per square foot. If enough accumulates — especially on top of snowpack — it’s recommended to clear it off roofs or other structures that could be damaged by weight.

If people do have to go outside, wear a mask, Walden said. But it’s better to remain indoors if ash fall occurs.

“Just having those little safety kits at home with appropriate quantities of medicine, food and water for three to seven days, and don’t forget the pets,” Walden said.

Following is further information in the event of an eruption and ash fall:
  • Visit www.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency for updates on current conditions and information on emergency preparedness and sheltering in place.
  • Stock up on vital supplies. Have enough food, water and necessary medication for everyone in your household — including pets — to last three to seven days. And think ahead. Some supplies may not be available in the event of heavy, continual ash fall, as some shipping services may be disrupted. Becky Dragseth, a dispatcher for Carlile Transportation in Kenai, said trucks will roll up to a certain point, but they’ll be parked if ash gets too thick — which means groceries and other supplies may not show up as scheduled.
  • Stay inside. Vehicles can be damaged by volcanic ash, and roads can become slippery. Breathing ash can cause respiratory problems.
  • If you must go out, wear a mask.
  • Check the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Web site, www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us, for information on whether bus or school schedules will be affected by ash. Also, listen to the radio for updates.
  • Don’t let kids play outside during ash fall. Have inside activities ready to keep them occupied.
  • If you’re driving, don’t. Ash will damage engines and leave roads slippery. If you absolutely must drive (but it’s really not recommended), drive slowly, allowing extra stopping distance, and stock up on extra filters for your vehicle.
  • Plane passengers should check with their airline to see if their flights will be affected by an eruption. As long as ash doesn’t blow toward flight routes, planes can still fly. For Era passengers, call the Kenai station at 283-3322, or 1-800-866-8394. For Grant Aviation, call the Kenai station at 283-6012, or 1-888-359-4726. If flights are canceled due to ash, both airlines will honor tickets for up to a year.

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