Report: Volcano eruption response good with a chance of improvement

Posted: Thursday, March 25, 2010

One year after Mount Redoubt erupted, the National Weather Service released a largely complimentary critique of their response to the disaster, but pointed to several things they could have done better.

Alaska Volcano Observatory/U.s. Geological Survey Photo, Game Mcgimsey
Alaska Volcano Observatory/U.s. Geological Survey Photo, Game Mcgimsey
This March 23, 2009 photo shows the view from south of the tank farm at Drift River Oil Terminal after lahars caused by the eruption of Mount Redoubt pushed up to the top of the west dike (on right) and spilled over in one location. The south dike (top of photo) was overtopped in several places (dark deposits/stripes).

Of note was a need to improve the delivery of information for both aviation users as well as operators of the Drift River Oil Terminal, a crude oil storage facility situated at the base of the 10,000' mountain, about 50 miles west of the city of Kenai.

The report said the eruptions, which lasted from March 22 to April 4, provided the agency with a chance to test technologies that monitor and track volcanic hazards like ash clouds.

The assessment was launched to look at how effectively these technologies were used and how the information was shared with other agencies and the public.

The volcano's 18 eruptions resulted in the cancellation of approximately 200 Alaska Airlines flights according to the report, and caused both FedEx and UPS as well as several other cargo airlines that fly into Anchorage to cancel or reroute flights.

Additionally the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage was shut down for 20 hours.

According to the assessment, some users thought that ashfall hazard areas were larger than necessary.

Aviation users in particular reported to the NWS that they would have liked more specific perimeters for the area affected by ashfall.

Volcanic ash, which can be thrown tens of thousands of feet into the atmosphere, is particularly hazardous to aircraft engines.

When Redoubt erupted in late 1989 a jetliner enrout to Anchorage passed through its ashcloud and suffered engine failure nearly causing a crash.

The report was also complimentary of the NWS' collaboration with partner agencies. This included working with the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage, emergency managers and media outlets among others.

The NWS reported, however, the ineffective use of the their incident meteorologist by the Unified Command, an interagency response taskforce established to during the eruption. "NWS personnel were not informed about their roles in the Unified Command and were excluded from important meetings to which they could have made significant contributions," the report stated.

The assessment was also critical of managers of the Drift River Terminal, saying: "Staff in the weather forecast office expressed concern that NWS products and services were underutilized by Drift River Oil Terminal management during the eruption."

The volcano unleashed two mudflows that partially inundated the facility. A proceeding shut down of that facility resulted in a halt to oil production upstream for several months, and has been blamed in part for the financial demise of at least one operator.

Impacts to industry caused by the eruption were looked at as part of the report, however socioeconomic impacts to local businesses or the public were not assessed.

The NWS did state however that: "The public was not greatly affected by the eruptions," going on to say that disruption to air travel and poor air quality were the biggest effects the eruption had on the general public.

The total economic impact of the eruption to the state was estimated to be $160 million or less, according to the NWS.

The report stated that: "A larger or more prolonged eruption could have catastrophic impacts on Anchorage and the Alaskan economy, which is closely tied to its transportation sector."

Dante Petri can be reached at

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