HOMER — An unknown problem in the National Weather Service Emergency Alert System caused warning sirens for Homer to sound about an hour after the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning for the Aleutian Islands from Unimak Pass to Amchitka Pass. The warning was issued after a 7.3 earthquake hit at 7:10 p.m. Thursday about 20 miles southeast of Amukta Pass west of Dutch Harbor. The rest of coastal Alaska, including Homer and Kachemak Bay, had only an information alert.
Hundreds of people on the Homer Spit and in low-lying areas evacuated after sirens went off about 8:15 p.m. Thursday night.
“People were running down this boardwalk with clothes falling out of their luggage and heading for the high road,” said Jimmy Lower, owner of Boss Hoggz Restaurant on the Big Bear Boardwalk. “The cars were lined up all the way to Coal Point. People were honking and kind of panicking.”
As happened March 10 with a similar siren warning after the Japanese earthquake, Homer had never been in danger from a tsunami.
By the time the sirens sounded, authorities knew Homer would not be affected by a tsunami. Homer Police received the warning through its federal emergency warning line and then the warning was cancelled, said Homer Police Lt. Randy Rosencrans. Police officers went to the Homer Spit and low-lying areas to notify people an evacuation was not needed.
Some people evacuating the Spit drove along Ocean Drive and over Beluga Slough to evacuate. The official route is to turn right off the Spit onto Kachemak Drive and continue toward high ground.
Officials with the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management and the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management also knew the tsunami warning center alert should have turned on a tone or radio signal from the National Weather Service on the Emergency Alert System. That tone automatically triggers tsunami sirens in the borough — even if borough communities aren’t under an actual tsunami warning.
The NWS alert radio issued a cancellation of the warning, but coincidentally the first warning alert then went through.
“It was very peculiar,” said Eric Mohrmann, director of the borough Office of Emergency Management.
Mohrmann got an email alert on his Blackberry from the tsunami warning center of the earthquake and went to his office about 7:30 p.m. to monitor the situation.
Police heard two siren warnings, one with an order to evacuate and a second canceling the warning, Rosencrans said. Police got dozens of calls after the sirens went off. However, with three dispatchers on duty police had no problems handling calls. Officers said the first loudspeaker message came through clearly, but the second message was garbled.
The borough sent out reverse-911 calls to all phone numbers with a message saying the siren alert was incorrect. A press release went out to local media.
The tsunami warning center also puts out notices on its website at wcatwc.arh.noaa.gov. That website shows recent earthquakes, predicted tsunami speeds and alert areas.
Dave Anderson, program director for KBBI AM-890, used the tsunami warning center website to get information that Homer was not affected by a possible tsunami. The loudspeaker message that went out with the sirens said to tune in to TV and radio stations for more information.
“The phones were just going nuts,” Anderson said.
Anderson had heard the sirens go off while he was eating at AJ’s Old Town Steakhouse. He went to KBBI and met program manager Terry Rensel there to start getting information out. Anderson sent out alerts about every 3 minutes as he and Rensel got more information. The Homer News also posted a web update about 9 p.m.
Under the system set up by the National Weather Service Emergency Alert System, if any area in coastal Alaska gets a tsunami warning, the alert tone goes out and sirens in all coastal communities go off — even if, as happened Thursday and in March, Homer did not have an actual tsunami warning. The National Weather Service has said that it can’t commit to a date when the system could change to alert coastal areas by region instead of statewide.
The alternative is for borough emergency managers to notify local emergency services dispatchers to trigger sirens locally, Mohrmann said.
“We can reduce the possibility of false alarms by taking it off the radio system, but that increases the possibility of an error by putting it on the local dispatchers,” he said.
There is one reliable warning that a tsunami will affect an area.
“One of the things that’s very clear: If persons feel an earthquake that lasts more than 20 seconds they should evacuate low-lying areas — period,” Mohrmann said.
“That’s the most important notification you will receive — the ground violently shaking,” said Jeremy Zidek, public information officer for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “In Homer with the Spit, as much notification that you can give people, that can be the difference between life and death.”
Mohrmann said he, borough Mayor Dave Carey and city officials in the borough will hold a teleconference next week to talk about Thursday’s event.
One change from the March tsunami warning was the use of the reverse 911 call-out. Mohrmann said his office hopes to extend that to cell phones as soon as details can be worked out to make that happen and allow people to sign up. His office also is looking at how to allow local police and fire departments direct access to the emergency alert broadcast system.
“I feel bad for the people down there who heard this and disrupted their lives and were very concerned. I regret that occurred,” Mohrmann said. “However, what’s better? To have something like this that occurs or have an actual tsunami and they’re not getting any warning at all?”
A small tsunami was generated by the earthquake, with a wave about 2 inches at Midway Island, 2.5 inches at Adak and 3.8 inches at Nikolski, said Guy Urban, a geophysicist with the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.
The National Weather Service in Anchorage could not be reached to explain why the tone alert did not sound in a timely manner.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.