How a Lifesaving Delivery of Heating Oil & Social Media Go Together

Happy New Year everyone. I hope you had a wonderful holiday season.

While much of the continental United States is enjoying a warmer than normal winter, Alaska has been bitterly cold with higher than average snowfall. It doesn’t make the news because most of you think it’s normal. For Alaska’s remote communities, their lives in winter depend on shipments that arrive before ice forms in the water preventing additional deliveries, except by air.

For those living in the west coast city of Nome and nearby villages, this winter has been anything but normal. An intense winter storm battered Alaska’s west coast much earlier than expected, meaning the last fuel delivery could not be made. With temperatures in the winter as low as -60 (without wind chills) the loss of this fuel delivery is truly a life or death matter.

What happened next was a series of discussions among local, state and federal governments to find a solution. The Sitnasuak Native Corporation signed a contract with Vitus Marine to have a Russian tanker deliver the fuel. What has happened since is an amazing lesson in international maritime law, federal maritime regulations and immense cooperation between private and federal entities. It was clear to most involved this was a critical situation. In fact, the tanker Renda began its mission (first heading to Korea) before all clearances were secured so it could arrive in Nome as early as possible.

Today the fuel is on its way to Nome and is expected to arrive roughly eight weeks after the originally scheduled delivery was prevented and in time for residents to remain warm this winter. The Renda is headed to Nome escorted by USCG Cutter Healy, the Coast Guard’s only operating Arctic icebreaker. The cooperation of various government entities and the (relatively) fast cutting of red tape and regulations to let a foreign ship conduct this mission have been amazing to read.

What has been interesting to watch, from a public relations/communications perspective, is the communication coming from those on the ship. Note that two reporters were asked to leave the ship at its last port since their presence violates the Jones Act. However:

  • The Alaska Dispatch, a web-only “newspaper” is hosting a blog from the state marine pilot onboard the boat with the Russian-based crew

  • That captain is also tweeting his progress and challenges using the handle @akicemission

  • Traditional media coverage has also been extensive (Google Renda Nome for the latest)

Many are likening this lifesaving mission to the 1925 Serum Run when diphtheria was raced to Nome via dogsleds. Those involved are credited with saving many lives in the area. Today’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is along roughly the same routes. What’s unique about today’s mission from a communication standpoint is the use of web-based tools to tell the story while the mission is unfolding.

I have made this story as uncomplicated as I could but thought my readers would enjoy learning a little about winter in remote Alaska with a modern-day communications twist.

PS – As I was getting ready to publish this, Caray published another update reporting the crew is celebrating Russian Christmas aboard the ship.

The Barber Group

Gig Harbor, Washington


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