Homer tries early tsunami warning demo technology

Posted: Monday, June 24, 2002

KENAI (AP) -- Alaska's Pacific coastal communities are vulnerable to one of nature's greatest threats -- tsunami.

Once a devastating bolt-out-of-the-blue phenomenon, the arrival of the hugely destructive waves can be predicted now, and residents living in low-lying areas often can be given time enough to evacuate if necessary.

A bit of that early-warning technology was installed in Homer last week for demonstration purposes. Technicians from the Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer installed a satellite dish and software designed primarily to give emergency managers rapid, up-to-date weather information.

In Homer's case, however, the equipment also will be used to provide early warning of tsunamis that might threaten this seaside community, said Homer Fire Chief Robert Painter.

The equipment and software were installed at the Homer Police Station, site of the city's emergency dispatch operators. The station is tied by cable to Homer's fire station.

Called RealEMWIN, for Real Emergency Managers Weather Information Network, the software was developed by a company called Skywatch Services to assist in downloading and displaying weather wire data transmitted over the nationwide weather information network. Available within seconds are everything from local weather conditions and forecasts to severe weather watches and warnings, including satellite and radar graphics.

The system already has been installed at the Alaska State Troopers post in Soldotna and is tied into the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management and the Seward Fire Station.

In Alaska, the system transmits data via the GOES West satellite, but the system also can use VHF radio reception and the Internet with the appropriate software. RealEMWIN also is available to the general public for use on home computers.

For Homer, permanent installation of such a satellite data system would give the city one more way to receive early warnings.

Homer is trying to become a TsunamiReady Community, under a program of the National Weather Service. The aim of the program is to upgrade the readiness of Alaska coastal villages, towns and cities. The program also is under way in Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii.

Painter said the city should have the final version of the application next week.

Predicting the effects of a tsunami is inexact even though scientific efforts have led to several modeling schemes now being applied to various Pacific shorelines.

''It's a young science yet,'' said Alec Medbery of the Tsunami Warning Center.

Tsunamis are caused when a disturbance such as an earthquake displaces the water column vertically. The waves also can be generated by landslides, as with volcanic eruptions, or even by meteors crashing into the sea.

On average, a tsunami may cross the Pacific Ocean at speeds between 450 and 650 mph, faster still in the very deepest parts of the ocean.

Topping the list of potential local dangers to Kachemak Bay communities is Augustine Volcano roughly 70 miles west of the mouth of Kachemak Bay on the far side of Cook Inlet. Augustine is among the most active of a chain of volcanoes along the Alaska Peninsula.

Painter is anxious to have the system up and running. Relying on landlines, radio or even the Internet can be problematic in a severe storm or after an earthquake, he said.

''Our connections are tenuous at best in Alaska,'' he said. In a big earthquake or severe storm, the Internet would likely be the first system to go down because it depends on cable connections that could be damaged, Painter said.

Satellites aren't damage-proof either. Magnetic solar storms several years ago knocked out the only satellite then being used by the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado, Medbery said.

The demonstration system will be operating for a couple of weeks at least. Homer will then decide about investing in such equipment. If the software is to the city's liking, permanent installation would be relatively inexpensive -- roughly $1,000, Medbery said.

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