Seward recognized for tsunami readiness

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2002

When the ground stopped moving on March 27, 1964, the nightmare was just beginning for residents of Seward.

The subsequent tsunamis (sea waves spawned by earthquakes or volcanoes) sent towering walls of water topped by flaming oil and debris up the Resurrection Valley. When the waves were finished, 12 people were dead and the city's waterfront destroyed.

Friday, the National Weather Service will honor Seward as the first community in Alaska to receive its TsunamiReady designation. A ceremony honoring the occasion is planned for 1 p.m. at the Alaska SeaLife Center.

The main goal of the TsunamiReady program is improving public safety during tsunami emergencies. Promoted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through its weather service subsidiary, the program targets communities on the Pacific Coast. It provides guidelines for communities and helps them meet the guidelines.

"I believe the goal of NOAA is to get all the port cities to have this," said David Squires, chief of the Seward Volunteer Fire Department and one of the organizers of the Seward project.

"Our problem here in Seward is mainly in the summer when we have a lot of visitors. ... It is the visitor population we are aiming this at."

Local people know their way around and tend to be aware of potential tsunami threats. The city does not have enough personnel to take care of hundreds of confused people in a crisis, and it has used things like sirens as warning systems for years.

"But somebody from Massachusetts won't know what those sirens mean," Squires said.

Now drivers will notice new blue-and-white signs along Seward's roadways -- signs that warn of a potential tsunami zone and point to evacuation routes in case of emergency.

The city's goal, he said, is to have a system visitors can figure out.

"Keep it simple, is what we are trying to do," he said.

Squires first learned about the new TsunamiReady program at an out-of-state conference he and former City Manager Tylan Shrock attended through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Project Impact grants to the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

Squires found that techniques that work for diverse situations such as protecting people from tornadoes in Nebraska can help protect Alaskans from earthquakes and tsunamis. The conference was an opportunity to pick up good emergency preparedness ideas from around the nation, because emergency workers have a tradition of cooperation and sharing, he said.

"Reinventing the wheel is really painful," he said.

The TsunamiReady program is a voluntary preparedness program that establishes guidelines for communities to be ready for tsunamis. It promotes ways of educating and warning the public so no one is caught off guard during a crisis, plus adequate emergency planning and resources so communities can respond effectively.

The Alaska Division of Emergency Services got interested in TsunamiReady and purchased materials for distribution here. It also developed an updated brochure about evacuations.

About a year ago Seward officials began working through the guidelines.

Squires called them thorough and helpful. The city had many of the recommended preparations in place before, but some required changes.

"The biggest thing we didn't do (before TsunamiReady) was signage and posted evacuation routes," he said.

The city has begun placing the new signs and will finish installing them this spring.

The signs, which come from the program, are standardized nationally. Squires sees that as a major advantage.

"If people have them in their own communities and see them here, they will know what to do. And the same if our people go to Hawaii," he said.

TsunamiReady is new enough that Seward is only the third town to have completed all the requirements so far, the first two being in Washington. Seward is the first in Alaska, but Homer and Kodiak are working on the program, too, he said.

In Alaska, the program is coordinated through the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer.

Squires made a point of seeking out old-timers who had witnessed the devastation 38 years ago to solicit their opinions on the emergency plans. As the memories of 1964 fade, such preparations remain critical. A new tsunami could strike any time, he said.

"I am one of the firm believers that if you don't learn history you repeat it," he said. "It's going to happen again. I hope it's after I'm long gone. I hope this will help improve things for those who come after me."

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