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Tsunami week to remember past disaster and prepare for future

Posted: March 27, 2013 - 9:44pm

When the earthquake struck that afternoon, he was relaxing in his radio and TV store in Soldotna.

Suddenly, the power shut off and the radios and TVs began shaking. They would not work either.

At the hardware store across the street pipes began falling off the shelves, and a car parked near the store and trees and power lines began rising up and down.

It lasted for about 5 minutes, he said.

“It was scary. That’s the main thing,” Al Hershberger said.

The 1964 earthquake killed 131 people and cost the state $300 to $400 million at the time in damages, according to the Alaska Earthquake Information Center.

Wednesday was the 49th anniversary of the 9.2 magnitude earthquake.

Today if an earthquake of that size struck Alaska, Hershberger, 87, of Soldotna, said the effects would be far more devastating, as the state’s population and infrastructure has boomed.

But early-warning technology for earthquakes and the potentially ensuing tsunamis has improved over the past 50 years, said Scott Walden, Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management director.

Wednesday morning the Kenai Peninsula tested its Tsunami Warning Systems as part of Tsunami Preparedness Week. The rest of the state’s coastline and West Coast did the same.

Walden said electronic buoys placed in the Pacific Ocean and eyewitnesses along the coastline help emergency personnel manage a potential tsunami.

“That gives us a little better lead time and idea of the threat,” he said.

For instance, he said if Peninsula emergency management received a report of a tsunami in Asia, they would know how large the wave is and would be able to provide several hours of warning by the time it reached the Saint Paul Islands.

While Homer and Seward are at the greatest risk for tsunamis, Walden said the Central Peninsula should prepare also. The bluffs may protect most homes and property but low-lying areas could be at risk, he said.

“It’s good to prepare for the worst case scenario,” he said.

There are three things people should consider when preparing for tsunamis, said Jeremy Zidek, Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management public information officer.

If the earth shakes for more than 20 seconds in costal areas, people should “head for high ground,” Zidek said. They also should look for the blue evacuation signs in tsunami high-risk areas that mark the tsunami zone.

Alert systems — sirens, radio, email, TV — will warm people of potential tsunamis, he said.

He said people should have a seven-day emergency survival kit ready, too, for all disasters that could isolate them.

“It enables them to remain in home,” he said, to be more self-sufficient.

For a listing of kit supplies go to www.ready.gov/build-a-kit.

In retrospect, Hershberger said he would probably not have done anything differently during and after the 1964 earthquake.

Electricity was out almost everywhere but the bowling alley, where he and another resident established a communication center with their ham radios, he said.

He messaged two people in Fairbanks who also felt the quake, he said.

Then he heard “Mayday, Mayday” over the radio. A man had lost his son in Valdez, he said.

“When I heard that it scared me,” he said; he had never before heard that distress call.

Dan Schwartz can be reached at daniel.schwartz@peninsulaclarion.com.

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