May 25, 2006

Perhaps They Should Have Tested More - Puyallup, WA Lahar Warning

False alarm: Radio broadcasts mistaken mudflow warning

The Associated Press

TACOMA – An emergency radio station mistakenly warned that a massive, volcanic-caused mudflow was headed from the flanks of Mount Rainier and that listeners in the valley below should rush to higher ground.

The emergency lahar warning was broadcast Wednesday for nearly an hour on the 1580 AM frequency in the suburban Pierce County town of Puyallup. Some listeners said they were horrified.

Authorities had no estimate how many people heard the broadcast on the weak frequency, or how many evacuated. Fewer than a dozen called Pierce County Emergency Management, the city of Orting or the Puyallup Fire Department.

Nancy Eldred heard it while driving in the Puyallup Valley and called her daughter, Renee Hutchinson, in Tacoma shortly after noon.

"I was in tears," Hutchinson told The News Tribune newspaper. "I was shaking."

Her 17-month-old son, Ethan, was in the car with his grandmother.

After Hutchinson warned co-workers, about 30 people started frantically calling loved ones. Some called their children at schools in the Puyallup Valley and told them to leave immediately, said LaNell Hoppe, the office manager.

"It was so scary," Hoppe said.

Tracy Frye, Eldred's daughter, also heard the warning as she surfed channels for traffic information.

"It kept repeating, 'This is not a test,"' she said.

The family went to schools to collect their children.

Someone called Orting City Hall, and officials there contacted federal authorities. They all confirmed that no lahar was coming.

The prerecorded radio message apparently was triggered by an error in software operated by Puyallup.

Emergency officials in communities around Mount Rainier routinely test the system that would, in the event of a real lahar from the volcano, activate 24 sirens around the valley and broadcast a radio alert. But on Wednesday, 1580 AM picked up the test signal as real and said the lahar was coming.

Officials said a software glitch apparently has caused similar false warnings in the past, according to scattered calls they received. Puyallup Fire Chief Merle Frank said the problem should be taken care of in the next few days.

Geologists have warned that a huge mudflow could break loose from Rainier's west flank with little warning and that a wall of mud and debris could swallow everything in its path and bury the Puyallup Valley floor where 60,000 people live.

In 2001, Seattle television stations falsely reported a major lahar based on unconfirmed police scanner chatter about a minor mudflow within Mount Rainier National Park. The region has had a number of lahar sirens mistakenly activated.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company