Volcano hasn’t put breaks on transportation — yet

Cabs, rental car agencies plan to keep driving for now

Posted: Sunday, January 15, 2006

With Mount Augustine’s recent eruptions, and more — possibly larger — eruptions predicted, central peninsula residents are beginning to prepare for an ashfall event that could disrupt public and private transportation.

“We sold out of air filters for Fords and Chevys and sold quite a few for imports,” said Justin Bird, an employee at Carquest Auto Parts Store in Soldotna in regard to sales Wednesday.

Bird said several more filters were ordered to meet the demand, and on Friday sales were continuing steadily.

“I think people are trying to get prepared. They want to have the filters on hand in case it does really blow,” he said.

Bird said winter is normally a slow time for air filter sales, but with the recent eruptions, business is booming.

“In a normal winter, we sell roughly 20 filters a week. Yesterday, we sold five times that in one day. We probably sold between 50 and 75 filters,” Bird said.

Keith Reineking, an employee at Napa Auto Parts in Kenai, said he also has seen a flurry of filter sales.

“We sold out of a full line of filters yesterday, and we sold a bunch more this morning,” he said Thursday.

Reineking, who has been through three volcano eruptions, said he believed in being prepared.

“It’s a good idea because if it does really blow, the ash can eat up an engine. It’s like sand. It’ll eat up the rings and cylinder walls. It’s all-around bad,” he said.

Taking this potential engine damage into consideration, transportation services say they will do all they can to prepare for an ashfall while continuing to provide services.

“Our last option would be to quit,” said Brent Hibbert, owner of Alaska Cab in Soldotna.

“We ran during the last volcano’s eruption. There’s a lot of people that depend on us as their sole source of transportation. They need us to get to work, school, doctor’s appointments,” he said.

Hibbert said cabs would only quit running if it became a human safety issue for drivers and passengers.

“It would have to be pretty bad, though, and if it’s that bad, employers won’t want employees going to work and people probably won’t need to be out in it anyway,” he said.

Bob Rogers, manager at Avis Rent-A-Car in Kenai, said he, too, will keep cars on the roads to the best of his ability.

“We still rented cars during the last eruption and we’ll keep renting during this one,” he said.

Rogers said it will mean more rigorous vehicle upkeep between rentals.

“We’ll keep the cars covered with tarps as much as possible until they’re rented, and change the air filters and service the cars after every rental,” he said.

Rogers said ashfall would have to be extreme for his business to close. If it did get to that point, he said Avis would likely not be the only business to make that decision, since many of their rentals are tied to people flying and flights likely would be grounded in severe conditions.

Glen Szymoniak, assistant superintendent with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, shared similar sentiments.

“If school is canceled, the buses don’t run,” he said.

Szymoniak said while they have the means to shelter kids in place at area schools, parents want to be with their kids during emergencies. As such, if a heavy ashfall warning comes early enough, then school will be canceled so children won’t leave for it. If already en route by bus, they can be turned around while the air is still clear.

“That way parents and kids don’t have to be separated for an extended period of time if vehicles aren’t running during an emergency. Kids and teachers can be in the best place ... their homes,” he said.

Jennifer Beckmann, executive director for the Central Area Rural Transit System, said CARTS will do its best to operate for as long as it is safe.

“If we have sufficient warning of a heavy ashfall, we will try to get the people on board to their destinations or homes,” she said.

“We’ll also do our best to get susceptible populations — the elderly, disabled or people with compromised health — to their destinations, then pull our vehicles out of service until it is safe to return to the road,” Beckmann added.

Unlike transportation services, public safety and law enforcement agencies don’t have the luxury of keeping vehicles parked.

“We’ll respond, whether it be by vehicle, ATV or whatever is necessary. If we can respond, we will,” said Lt. Pete Mlynarik with the Alaska State Trooper E Detachment in Soldotna.

“That’s what we’re here for. We have to carry on,” he said.

Troopers, like everyone else, will just have to change their air filters frequently, he said.

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