Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Borough is ready for rumbles — Emergency management team keeps tabs on Redoubt eruption

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Scott Walden usually gets up at 4:30 a.m. He was about ready to head to bed around 10 p.m. Sunday night. But when you’re the coordinator of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management and a volcano starts erupting across Cook Inlet, sleep can be hard to come by.

After three months of on-and-off rumbling, Mount Redoubt finally made good on its threats. The volcano began a series of eruptions at 10:38 p.m. Sunday night, followed by others at 11:02 p.m., 12:14 a.m. and 1:39 a.m., according to the Alaska Volcano Observatory. The largest blast of the morning occurred at 4:03 a.m. Monday, sending an ash cloud more than 60,000 feet — 12 miles — into the air. Another large eruption occurred at 7:41 p.m. Monday, sending another ash plume 60,000 feet into the air.

Walden’s work cell phone, a 24-hour necessity for occasions such as these, started ringing between 10 and 10:20 p.m. Sunday, he said, when it became clear Redoubt was ready to do more than just rumble.

With that, the borough’s Office of Emergency Management was in motion.
Built in 2006, the borough’s Emergency Management Center on Willow Street in Soldotna is a self-contained, state-of-the-art facility that serves as incident command center when a natural disaster or emergency strikes — be it a flood, wildfire or volcanic eruption.

It’s a huge step up from the trailer behind the Borough Building OEM used to inhabit, Walden said. Now there’s the necessary space, equipment and facilities to do what needs to be done in times of emergency.

For the most part, that’s gathering and distributing information, Walden said.

“Our job mainly is to coordinate information to get accurate information out,” he said. “We don’t create the information so much as contribute to the creation of it.”

OEM is the borough’s link to the agencies and experts monitoring the situation — in this case, primarily the Alaska Volcano Observatory and the National Weather Service. OEM also is the point of coordination between Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and any other areas of the state facing the same situation, and the multitude of departments, organizations and agencies that have a hand in weathering the storm — the Federal Aviation Administration, National Guard and Alaska Department of Transportation, to name a few.

It’s a two-way interface, with OEM getting updates from the volcano observatory and the weather service on eruption activities, ash cloud trajectory and weather forecasts, and being expected to return the favor if the borough has any information to report, such as ash fall observations.

“We get a lot of e-mails from people saying ‘Redoubt is erupting, there’s ash fall in Safeway parking lot.’ And I go and look, if need be,” Walden said. “We got reports of ash fall here around 2 o’clock (a.m.). I looked again, and of course it wasn’t happening.”

In a situation like Redoubt that’s happening beyond the borough’s boundaries, OEM’s main role is to disseminate information. OEM gathers updates on volcanic activity and ash fall advisories — basically, everything everyone needs to know — posts them to the borough’s OEM Web site, e-mails them to an extensive list of contacts in the media and community, updates the borough administration and department heads, the school district, hospitals, service areas, emergency response agencies, maintenance departments and a long list of others across the borough that most people wouldn’t even think of. But OEM does.

“If there is a really bad situation, we’ll let everybody know what’s going on,” Walden said.

The OEM office is staffed 24 hours a day for the duration of an emergency and has different levels of response it can escalate to, up to having 30 or 40 people working around the clock, with 100 extra phone lines patched in and a chaplain at the ready for the community, if need be.

The Redoubt eruption had staff at the lowest level of response, Walden said. Extra personnel were brought in to answer phones, which were ringing off the hook for about 40 minutes when power to all Homer Electric Association customers across the peninsula — 28,000 meters — went out around 8 a.m. Monday. Though it was just a coincidence, people assumed it was caused by the volcano erupting, Walden said.

Joe Gallagher, spokesman for Homer Electric Association, said the outage was caused by an unknown problem with the transmission line between Anchorage and the peninsula. Engineers were working Monday to determine what exactly happened, Gallagher said.

“We don’t have any reason whatsoever to link this to the ash fall,” he said.
Heavy ash fall could potentially cause a problem if it accumulated on power lines, transformers or electric facilities, Gallagher said, but that would only cause a localized outage.

“We’ve had experience with ash fall in the past. It’s never been anything where we had to shut down the system or anything like that. There’s been instances of isolated arcs, where in fact ash did get into the system, but it was isolated to distinct spots,” he said.

The transmission line was brought back online by 10 a.m., and the system was fully restored by 10:40 a.m.

Other than that curve ball, the day went smoothly, Walden said. The school district was apprised of eruption activity and ash plume trajectory early in the morning, and decided by 5 a.m. to go ahead with school. All the communications systems and information releases came in and went out as expected. Mother Nature even cooperated, from the Kenai Peninsula’s perspective, in keeping a steady wind out of the northeast that spared the Kenai from ash fall.

It was a relatively undisastrous disaster, even for the areas that were directly affected, like the Susitna Valley. Ash fall was light, Walden said, probably lighter than the images people conjure up about it.

“A trace amount is under a millimeter. Medium ash fall is one to three millimeters. When you realize a trash bag is 10 millimeters, that’s not a lot of ash. If we got significantly dumped on, that might be as much as a dime,” he said.

Even small amounts of ash can be a big problem, though. If mixed with snow, ash can contribute to roof collapses and other weight-bearing issues. It’s a health risk if inhaled, especially for people with respiratory problems. It can turn roads into Slip ’n’ Slides and wreak havoc with delicate machinery and electronics.

That’s probably the biggest difference between this eruption and the last time Redoubt was active — the amount of electronics equipment in use.

“Even the grocery store, you don’t have someone who figures out your bill and gives you a receipt, it’s all electronic,” Walden said. “That kind of stuff needs to be looked at now, whereas 20 years ago it wasn’t a concern. Nowadays it’s vital.”

Other than the rash of calls during the blackout, the emergency center was relatively quiet, Walden said. People seemed to know how to get information and were already prepared in the event of an ash fall.

“We did a lot of public information before the eruption about what people should do, so when something like this occurs you don’t have people panicking,” Walden said.

People Outside seem more concerned about the eruptions than locals, Walden said, probably due to imaginations or sensationalized news coverage running wild.

“It’s just kind of an unusual situation to have a volcano in your backyard. The image of what a volcano does and what we’ve seen it actually do are two different things,” Walden said.

“For the most part people are pretty reasonable. They listen and don’t react too much to what cable television is telling them.”

Image courtesy of Game McGimsey, Alaska Volcano Observatory / U.S. Geological Survey
Flooding and tephra deposits — volcano-produced, airborne material that settles on the ground, churn down the Drift River Valley off Mount Redoubt after eruptions Monday.

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