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Augustine erupts again -- and again and again

Posted: Friday, January 13, 2006

Augustine Volcano erupted numerous times Friday morning. On an ominous Friday the 13th, the volcano 75 miles from Homer blew for 44 minutes starting at 3:55 a.m. and kept blowing, with the latest eruption at 11:30 a.m.

The Kenai Peninsula School District delayed school buses for two hours and then canceled school. Some students were picked up, and buses turned around and took them home.

The National Weather Service issued an ash cloud warning at 9:30 a.m. An ash cloud moving east northeast at about 15 mph was detected by weather radar and reported by pilots, with a cloud at 30,000 feet with lightning. A cloud at 20,000 feet was expected to pass over Homer starting as early as 10 a.m. The NWS said a light ash fall was expected to hit Homer and western Kachemak Bay by 3 p.m. An ash advisory was put into effect until 7 p.m.

The ash cloud from an 8:50 a.m. eruption was reported over western Kachemak Bay by noon. Seldovia reported no ash on the ground, but gray skies. A National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration wind projection for the first eruption predicted would carry ash over Homer. The Alaska Volcano Observatory predicted ash fall would be light. Modeling for later eruptions was not complete by noon.

The Homer Volunteer Fire Department activated its Emergency Operations Center Thursday afternoon and put it in standby mode. The center is ready for immediate staffing if needed, HFVD said in a release Friday morning. In the event of a serious ash fall, noncritical city services or departments would be closed. Homer City Hall remained open. The Homer District Court was closed Friday morning.

The State Emergency Coordination Center is open and communicating with local, state and federal agencies, the Alaska National Guard and Alaska Command regarding the continued eruptions. The center has been open 24 hours a day and is monitoring the situation with the AVO and National Weather Service. David Liebersbach, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said the SECC would remain open as long as Augustine was at Code Orange or as emergency coordination was needed. All military units, including the U.S. Coast Guard, were in operation. In the event of heavy ashfall in Anchorage, military aircraft would be moved north to Fairbanks bases.

With the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday, Liebersbach said the SECC had updated its contact list to keep in contact with federal workers who might be needed over the long weekend.

Era Aviation Customer Service Agent Lisa Hunt of Homer said flights into and out of Homer were canceled this morning and a morning flight from Anchorage to Kodiak also was canceled. However, Kenai flights remain in operation. Michael Laffan with Smokey Bay Air said all flights were canceled and aircraft not able to fit in the company's hangar were being covered for protection from possible ashfall.

With an ashfall generated by the Friday eruptions of Augustine Volcano predicted to reach Homer, an FAA Homer Flight Service spokesperson said Friday morning that they were in wait-and-see mode.

Kevin Jones, Homer airport manager with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said he and his crew were also in a wait-and-see mode.

"We're just waiting to see how much (ash) we get and we'll deal with it from there," Jones said. "Everyone is erring on the side of safety. There's no need to push the issue. If we're fortunate, it'll pass us and we won't have to deal with it."

"Through rain, sleet or volcanic ash, we shall deliver the mail," said Homer Postmaster Michael Moore at 10:50 a.m. Friday. "A little bit of ash doesn't bother me."

However, Moore added that mail flights to Seldovia, Nanwalek and Port Graham had been canceled for the afternoon. In Homer, mail deliveries were continuing on schedule.

"We're playing it by ear. If it gets bad, if ash is on the ground, I'm calling the carriers in," Moore said. "It's business as usual, just cautious business as usual."

As daylight broke, Augustine was shrouded in clouds and not visible from the Homer Spit. An AVO Webcam on the island showed a previously white island now totally gray and covered in ash. Steaming mud and debris could be seen flowing down the volcano's east flank.

Residents in Homer, Seldovia, Nanwalek, Halibut Cove, Anchor Point and Ninilchik did not report any ash falling by noon.

Jeff Mishler at Anchor River Tesoro said there was a light snow falling in Anchor Point at 11:05 a.m. Ensuring it was snow, not ash, Mishler reported what was falling from the sky was melting in his hand.

"Them guys are nuts. What are we going to do, stop living because we've got a little ash falling?" Steve Vanek, who heads up Ninilchik Emergency Services, said in response to school closures on Friday. "This isn't something we haven't experienced before. Same as if we had an earthquake. In 1989, Redoubt blew and we got lots of ash."

At 11:15 a.m., Vanek reported no ash was falling in Ninilchik.

No ash fell Friday morning in Nanwalek, a small village on the southern Kenai Peninsula west of Augustine Volcano and directly facing Cook Inlet. However, James Kvasnikoff, manager of the English Bay Corporation Store, said residents in the village were on alert and taking precautions.

"We have an emergency response plan that everyone in the community is aware of," Kvasnikoff said. "We're keeping our windows closed, doors closed, staying indoors if we can help it and filling up on water."

Considering the possibility of a tsunami that could be generated by seismic activity in the area, Kvasnikoff said the village's emergency response plan called for residents to meet at village water tower.

"And we have homes above the 100-foot line above sea level that are in the safe zone should that happen," he said.

An 1883 eruption of Augustine Volcano triggered a tsunami that was observed as a surge 20 feet above normal sea level at Nanwalek, according to information provided by the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.

At 5:20 p.m. Thursday, AVO had dropped Augustine to Code Orange, indicating an eruption could occur. With the eruption, AVO raised the level to Code Red the second time Augustine had gone from orange to red this week. Renewed activity on Augustine for the next few hours or days is likely and may occur with little or no warning, U.S. Geological Survey scientists said.

Local radio stations are providing current information. Further information can be found at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management Web site at www.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency/default.htm or at the Alaska Volcano Observatory site at www.avo.alaska.edu. However, some Web sites have been getting heavy traffic and may not be available.

Michael Armstrong and McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com and mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.



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