Tsunami alert rattles Homer: Sirens, warning gets emergency officials hopping

Posted: Sunday, March 13, 2011

A tsunami alert that went off Thursday at 11:30 p.m. gave Kachemak Bay and lower Cook Inlet a brief scare and lit up the phones at the Homer Police Department.

After an 8.9 earthquake hit at 8:46 p.m. Thursday Alaska time off the east coast of Honshu, Japan, the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center notified the National Weather Service that a tsunami could hit coastal Alaska. That triggered sirens in Homer, Seldovia, Nanwalek and Port Graham, as well as other coastal communities.

A voice message also issued a warning telling people to evacuate low-lying areas and to tune in to radio and television. The same message interrupted regular programming.

"Our dispatch center was absolutely inundated by phone calls," said Homer Police Chief Mark Robl.

The earthquake and a 23-foot tsunami killed hundreds and caused widespread damage in Japan.

Emergency managers determined that the lower Kenai Peninsula was not threatened by a tsunami and did not order an evacuation. A tsunami wave of less than 1 foot did hit Homer about 5:08 a.m. Friday, shortly before a high tide of 16.7 feet at 5:38 a.m. No damage was reported. The harbor officer on duty did not notice anything measurable, said Deputy Harbormaster Matt Clarke.

Alarms also went off in Seldovia, on the south side of Kachemak Bay, according to Tim Dillon, Seldovia city manager.

"We were first notified a little after midnight when the sirens went off," said Dillon. "We made contact with the borough (Emergency Management) folks and I was updated every hour and a half or so."

Dillon dispatched Layla Jandt-Petersen, the city's harbormaster, to assess impact to the harbor. Other city personnel also fell into step as trained by recently completed emergency training.

"We were real pleased when we heard a little after 3:15 a.m. that it had hit (Alaska), and it was a little less than three feet and strictly a tsunami advisory, not a warning. That was a good thing," said Dillon.

An exchange student from Japan attending Homer High School, Eri Sugiyama, is from Tokyo. Thanks to Skype, a text, voice and video computer program, Eri was able to contact her family.

"They're OK," Arnold Seay, Eri's host father, told the Homer News. "They were in a town near the epicenter of the earthquake, but had left the evening before. She was worried last night, but she's doing OK now."

For the past 25 years, Homer has shared a sister city relationship with the Japanese city of Teshio, on the western coast of Hokkaido. Teshio resident Vicki Mansell traveled to Homer in August as the interpreter for a Teshio delegation.

"As of last night Teshio is/was OK," Mansell wrote in an e-mail to the Homer News shortly after noon today. "There has been another earthquake this a.m. on the other side of the island and I don't know yet how that will affect the Japan Sea side. Yes, the news is devastating and it will continue to be so for quite awhile I imagine. Greet all there and if there are any changes I will let you know."

Because of confusion after tsunami sirens went off, Homer Police received numerous calls. Robl said an off-duty dispatcher came to the station, assisting another dispatcher and two officers in taking calls. The harbor office also received about 10 calls. Police told callers to tune in to radio and TV stations and to check National Weather Service and West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center websites.

Dispatchers were surprised at how many callers didn't have Internet access, said Homer City Manager Walt Wrede.

The State Emergency Coordination Center at Camp Denali, Anchorage, also activated. The borough Office of Emergency Management talked with state officials to assess the situation and determined by midnight that the lower threat level of an advisory should be in effect, Emergency Management Director Eric Mohrmann said.

Coincidentally, incident management teams had planned an exercise for March 23 to go through a tsunami scenario.

"Talk about timing," Mohrmann said. "We're kind of putting the cart before the horse."

Despite the confusion, the good news was that the tsunami warning sirens did work. City officials had been concerned when the sirens first went in several years ago about problems with them properly activating.

Gov. Sean Parnell also declared March 20-26 Tsunami Awareness Week, in recognition of the March 27, 1964 Alaska earthquake that killed 106 Alaskans.

Morhmann advised Alaskans to prepare emergency kits that include food, water, warm clothing, sleeping bags and medicine.

As loud as the city's tsunami siren may have been, Brenda Dolma, a self-professed deep sleeper, said she didn't hear it. A more familiar sound awoke Dolma, however.

"It was the phone calls from people that saw it on TV and called to make sure we were OK that woke me up," said Dolma.

For more information on emergency preparedness and information on tsunamis and earthquakes, visit these websites:

Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management: http://www.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency/prepared/earthquake.htm

West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center: http://wcatwc.arh.noaa.gov/

National Weather Service Alaska: http://www.arh.noaa.gov/

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com. McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.

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