Japan's tragedy tests us

Posted: Monday, March 21, 2011

For a half hour earlier this month, Kachemak Bay and lower Cook Inlet feared the worst. At 11:30 p.m. March 10, our new tsunami sirens sounded and, for the first time, it was not a test. A system installed with all sorts of bugs and glitches did what it was supposed to: It warned us of impending danger.

Fortunately, it turned out we only had a tsunami advisory and not the more serious warning. No one died or was injured, although people living near the beaches had more worry than they wanted. The Homer Police Department got flooded with calls. (Our hats off, by the way, to the dispatchers and officers who fielded those calls with patience and professionalism.) Communication didn't work as well as it should have.

Coincidentally, this week, March 21-29, is Tsunami Awareness Week, a reminder of the Good Friday Alaska Earthquake of 1964. It's a good bet we're all tsunami aware now. A planned exercise has been canceled, since emergency planners figured out they'd gone through a real-world exercise last Thursday and Friday. The job now is to figure out what didn't go right and what lessons we all can learn from last week's event.

First, it became apparent that not everyone had Internet access and couldn't go to the National Weather Service or Alaska Pacific Tsunami Warning Center websites. That's a reminder that as we modernize communication, we need to bring those without computers or web access into the 21st century. It's also a reminder to use cheap, reliable technology like portable, battery-powered radios tuned to the weather channel. Emergency alerts go to the NOAA weather radio signal, but they also should go to local radio stations.

The tsunami that wasn't also should remind us to update our personal emergency response, including:

Planning evacuation routes. If you live in low-lying areas 50 feet or less above sea level, know how to get to safe ground. If you don't have a car or are infirm, make plans with friends and caregivers to get you a ride.

Get your emergency kit together. That includes food and water for at least three days, sleeping bags, warm clothing, medicine, flashlights, and first aid supplies.

Get an emergency, battery-powered radio that can receive the weather channel and other radio stations.

Work out a plan for notifying family and friends outside Homer that you're safe.

Take emergency training and learn skills that can help you survive in a disaster. Fortunately, as Alaskans we're used to camping and living in rough conditions, so we're a step ahead.

We live on the coast and in earthquake and volcano country. We've already had some close calls with recent eruptions of Augustine Volcano and Mount Redoubt. Those who lived through the 1964 Earthquake remember The Big One. If we're blessed, we'll live another 47 years without a big earthquake.

Our hearts and prayers go out to Japan as she rebuilds. We've forged strong relationships with our sister city, Teshio, and have many friends across the Pacific. Japan has endured worse horrors and will survive this, but it's going to be a long road to recovery with much mourning.

-- Homer News, March 17

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