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Arctic coastal communities prepare for possibility of cruise ship emergency

  • Author: Kamala Kelkar
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 13, 2015

It had been an ordinary day in the small coastal city of Kotzebue until 120 foreigners on a German cruise liner made a surprise visit. ?

The passengers had been redirected to the Arctic hub because weather had thwarted them from flying out of Nome, remembers Maija Lukin, now Kotzebue's mayor. The ship arrived in 2012, and she was a private citizen at the time.

The cruise ship, MS Hanseatic, anchored about 15 miles away and shuttled passengers on smaller boats to the Crowley Petroleum dock. There, the disoriented passengers were greeted by dozens of curious residents from the city of about 3,200, mostly Alaska Natives.

"They were looking at us like we were zoo animals and we were kind of looking at them like they were zoo animals," Lukin said.

Then they were driven away, presumably to the airport, she said.

That cruise ship was part of a surge in vessels sailing in the region in the last decade, as extensive summer melting of sea ice has opened more Arctic waterways.

Traffic through the Bering Sea has doubled since 2007, now averaging about 400 trips a year, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Taking a cue from its unexpected guests -- and realizing the city would have been unprepared had the passengers needed more help -- the City of Kotzebue began evaluating emergency response resources.

Despite initial planning, officials from Kotzebue, along with other coastal communities and the Coast Guard, are worried about a possibility of a far larger emergency response than the 2012 episode led them to prepare for.

Next year, a luxury cruise ship will carry nearly 10 times as many passengers as the Hanseatic through the Northwest Passage.

The Crystal Serenity, operated by Crystal Cruises, will sail from Seward in August with 1,700 people -- 1,050 guests and 650 crew members -- on a month-long itinerary that follows Alaska's coast, stopping at Nome before proceeding through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago to Greenland and finally to New York.

Bookings for the cruise, which costs between $21,755 and $119,995 per person without insurance, opened on July 15. They sold out within three weeks, and there are 700 people on the waiting list, according to Crystal Cruises.

Crystal Cruises says it is taking all necessary steps to ensure safety, but the prospect of helping out so many passengers in an emergency is a daunting one for communities along its route.

The cruise also has the attention of the U.S. Coast Guard, which has been teaming with both Crystal Cruises and coastal communities to map out emergency plans.

Rear Adm. Gary Rasicot, the Coast Guard's director of marine transportation systems, told reporters at the GLACIER conference in Anchorage recently that Serenity keeps him up at night.

"As a Coast Guardsman, I don't want a repeat of the Titanic, and we need to make sure that we think this through," he said. "I want to make sure that those 1,700 people, when they lay their head on the pillow at night, they'll be rest assured that if something bad happens we'll be able to respond."

About two months ago, Coast Guard officials met with local and state planners from coastal communities to practice responding to a maritime emergency.

Kotzebue City Manager Derek Martin said the exercise helped put their role in perspective, though they only discussed emergency responses to more traditional cruise ships like the Hanseatic.

"The biggest challenge is that we're very, very remote and accidents can and will happen, unfortunately," said Martin. "That's the real world we face. ... Seventeen hundred people would create a bit of chaos."

The closest Coast Guard cutters, the agency's main emergency response vessels, are stationed hundreds of miles south of Kotzebue and Nome -- and even further from Barrow -- the largest coastal hubs the Serenity will encounter sailing toward Canada.

Martin and Lukin, along with Kotzebue's fire chief and police chief all said the city is making do with what it has, but what it has is limited. The fire chief pointed out that the city's hospital has limited capabilities and its emergency room only has five beds.

Mayor Denise Michels of Nome, which is slightly more populous than Kotzebue, echoed the sentiment.

"Our hospital only has 19 beds. We've identified other places within the City of Nome for shelter, the rec center is designated as our emergency shelter," Michels said. "We can only be prepared. … With the new interest in the Bering Strait, besides this type of vessel, it could be any one of them."

Michels said she has confidence in Crystal Cruises; its crew is working closely with the Coast Guard and the National Guard.

A cruise consultant said the cruise line has done everything it can to ensure safety.

Among other measures, an icebreaker equipped with a helicopter will meet the Serenity in Canadian waters, and will be available to meet the ship earlier, in Alaska, if needed.

"We plan to be tens of miles offshore for most of the time and we would be looking more to other vessels in the event of emergency," said Tim Soper, a consultant with Expedition Voyage Consultants, which is working with Crystal Cruises. "There's a lot of marine traffic along the coast, there are other vessels in the area, and our escort vessel would be at that time, maybe two days sailing away. ... Crystal has made a really extensive emergency response plan for the voyage."

The company plans to meet with Coast Guard officials -- who commend Crystal Cruises for going beyond expectations -- in April for further preparations.

"Crystal Cruise lines have a lot of responsibility and if something goes wrong they have to have plans in place," said Chief of Staff Charles Cashin of the 17th District. "Part of the Coast Guard's responsibility is prevention and trying to prevent bad things from happening."

City officials said they are grateful for the Coast Guard's work, but reiterate that no amount of planning can make up for a lack of resources and infrastructure.

"There's nowhere else for them to go," Lukin said. "And that's the thing I'd be worried about."

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