Volcanic eruption: How to be prepared, and stay safe

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Are you prepared for a major volcanic eruption? It's okay if you're not, because we've got what you need to know about keeping yourself and your family safe during a volcanic eruption.

Jeremy Zidek with the state of Alaska's emergency management team demonstrates how you should dress if you absolutely have to go outside during a volcanic eruption.

It's important to be familiar with volcanoes in your area with the potential to erupt, and how those eruptions could affect you.

Chris Waythomas is a geologist with the United States Geological Survey and Alaska Volcano Observatory. He keeps a close eye and collects samples on the 52 historically active volcanoes along the Aleutian Chain.

"So it's a lot of real estate. Most of it's pretty remote, not easy to get to,” Waythomas said. “So we use a variety of techniques to stay on top of unrest."

His first priority is to learn the path of ash clouds so the countless planes navigating Alaska’s skies can avoid them at all costs. Ash, which is essentially fragments of jagged rock, minerals and volcanic glass, can damage airplane engines mid-flight.

"Any airborne ash that an airplane could encounter would cause a variety of problems for the aircrafts," Waythomas said.

Waythomas says major population centers in Alaska are far enough away, but ashfall is still considered a major public health hazard. The chemical composition of ash can irritate the skin and lungs.

"So people need to be ready for even small amounts of ash that can be generated by a routine Cook Inlet eruption," he said.

For Anchorage, it's Mount Spurr, Redoubt and Augustine. For Chignik, it's Mount Veniaminof, which has been in a constant state of unrest since early September. So, how exactly do you prepare yourself and your family for a volcanic eruption?

Jeremy Zidek is with the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He walked Channel 2 through a long list of tasks to complete before, during and after a volcanic eruption.

He starts off simple, with a 3-step process:

Step 1 – Develop a family emergency plan
- “We want to have a family emergency plan that talks about where our family members are going to go during the disaster event, who they're going to call and how they can contact those people,” Zidek said.

Step 2 – Stay informed
- “We want to be informed about the disasters that can impact us, whether that's earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, floods, or storms. And know what the warning signs are, know what the proper safety action is,” Zidek said. You can do this by monitoring an AM/FM radio, or broadcast TV if possible.

Step 3 – Build an emergency kit
- “We want to have an emergency kit. That Emergency kit is going to have seven or more days of supplies,” Zidek said.

Emergency kit supplies:

Food: "First, we're going to want to have different types of foods in our emergency kit, things that are shelf-stable and have a long shelf-life that are also easy to consume,” Zidek said. He says to make sure to have a portable stove at the ready to cook the food.

Water: "We want to have water. We want to have one gallon of water per person per day for seven or more days," Zidek said. He says seven days is the minimum, but two weeks is optimal.

Portable light sources: “We recommend flashlights and a plentiful supply of batteries,” Zidek said. He says ash clouds can darken the sky for unknown periods of time, and being able to see in low-light conditions is a necessity.

AM/FM radio: “We also want to have a radio that can get AM/FM radio to pick up on any type of emergency communications that’s coming forth,” Zidek said. He says failure to consistently monitor emergency communications could result in missing an evacuation order.

Protective gear: “We don’t want volcanic ash to get on our skin, and if it does get on our skin, we want to get it off of our bodies very quickly,” Zidek said. Must-have protective gear includes: gloves, hooded jackets, safety goggles, baseball caps, N-95 or greater masks, and the usual pants, socks and shoes.

Rolls of plastic sheeting: “Having plastic sheeting to protect your electronics, and seal off any doorways and broken windows and prevent that ash from coming in your home,” Zidek said. Ash can be very damaging to electronic circuitry, plus the plastic makes cleanup easier, he says. He recommends using tape to seal off doors and windows.

A to-go emergency kit: “It’s a smaller subset of the things that you keep in your larger emergency kit, but the point here is to have a kit that you can grab if you’re told that you need to leave your house very quickly,” Zidek said. He showed a regular-sized backpack packed to the brim with a condensed version of everything covered earlier. Some important things to remember in this kit are any essential medications, dog food for any pets you might have, and diapers if you have an infant.

Last important safety tips that can keep you and your family safe during a volcanic eruption:

- Turn off your home’s heating unit: “You want to do this on forced-air heating units to prevent air from outside, and ash, from being sucked into your home and distributed through your home,” Zidek said. “If your heating system does run when volcanic ash is in the air, you’re going to want to change your filter. You can do that by purchasing a spare filter in advance.”

- If you’re outside when the volcano erupts, get indoors immediately.

- If you do have to go outside for any reason, protect your skin by wearing all of the protective gear mentioned earlier in this story: gloves, hooded jacket, safety goggles, a baseball cap, a N-95 or greater mask, and the usual pants, socks and shoes.

For information about volcanic activity near you, visit the “https://avo.alaska.edu/activity/report.php?id=371171&mode=hans&type=8” target="_blank"> Alaska Volcano Observatory’s Notification page.

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