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Technical glitch triggers false tsunami alarm

Posted: September 3, 2014 - 4:36pm  |  Updated: September 3, 2014 - 4:45pm

Borough and federal emergency officials are reviewing the technical glitch which caused a false tsunami warning to go off about 10:15 a.m. Tuesday. 

Tsunami warning sirens on the Homer Spit, Ocean Drive and Bishop’s Beach went off, causing some people to evacuate and the Homer Police Department to get inundated by calls. Sirens also went off in Seward, Seldovia, Nanwalek and Port Graham. The alert directed people to listen to local radio, but local stations had not received any emergency information.

“We have to make sure this doesn’t happen again so we don’t violate the public’s confidence,” said Sam Albanese, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service, Anchorage.

“We don’t want to cry wolf. We don’t want those false activations,” said Dan Nelson, program coordinator for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management. 

The sirens and warning message got activated when National Weather System technicians doing a monthly test of the tsunami warning system somehow included an embedded code that automatically triggered borough sirens. Technicians sent out on the weather radio broadcast a verbal test message saying “this is a test of the tsunami warning system,” Albanese said, but that verbal message also included the embedded code.

Nelson said the borough warning system is by design intended to activate when the embedded code is received.

“It’s completely automatic,” he said. “It’s designed that way because of the potentially short turnaround of any tsunamis. It doesn’t rely on human intervention.”

Nelson said in an actual emergency, the National Weather Service would receive information on tsunami warnings from the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, Palmer. The weather service then issues live codes and weather radio broadcasts to agencies like the Office of Emergency Management.

Nelson advises people to listen to the weather radio as a backup to local radio broadcasts. The same emergency message would go out on weather radio that is heard from tsunami warning towers. That on Tuesday weather radio broadcast weather reports and not an emergency message was the first clue for many that something had gone wrong.

Once emergency officials realized it was a false alarm, the Office of Emergency Management issued an all-clear over the warning tower broadcast system and notified local authorities. Homer Police Department Lt. Will Hutt said Homer Police received a call from borough emergency management and notified the Homer Volunteer Fire Department, the harbormaster and local media.

The borough message said, “This is an all-clear. The test is now complete.” Nelson said that was a prerecorded message, and the Office of Emergency Management used it to get an all-clear out quickly. There had not been a test.

“We weren’t meaning to confuse anybody,” he said.

What did go right was that people took the warning seriously and began to evacuate. 

“The up side of this is everything worked as it was supposed to, but it wasn’t supposed to be going off,” Nelson said.

On the Homer Spit, two fishermen from Wasilla heard the siren and started evacuating. Alfonso Kahlstorf said they didn’t want to become part of Davy Jones’ locker.

“We were throwing stuff in our truck and getting ready to book it,” said Ed Hoffman.

Hutt said other people also started evacuating, including other Spit campers, staff of the Homer office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, located on Douglas Street off Ocean Drive and right next to the tsunami warning tower, as well as students and staff from Fireweed Academy on East End Road. The police department also got swamped by hundreds of calls, Hutt said.

“We couldn’t get lines out there were so many calls. Some were 911 calls,” he said.

Albanese and Nelson said borough and National Weather Service officials have been exchanging emails trying to figure out the exact cause of the false alarm and how to prevent such false alarms in the future.

“The Weather Service is a great partner. We’ll work together,” Nelson said. 

Homer has had two previous confusing tsunami warnings. In March 2011 after the Honshu, Japan, earthquake and tsunami, sirens went off statewide. In the Aleutian Islands there was an actual warning, but in Homer there was a tsunami advisory. Everyone heard the same message of a tsunami warning and to evacuate. In June 2011, warning sirens went off again an hour after a tsunami warning had been issued for the Aleutian Islands. The warning told people in Homer to evacuate, but there was no danger of a tsunami and the tsunami warning had already been lifted for the Aleutian Islands.

That’s Albanese’s biggest fear: that people won’t take tsunami warnings seriously.

“We can’t leave people guessing ‘Is this the real thing or not?’ We don’t want to have people guessing ‘Did this really happen?’” he said. “When we issue the warning, you take the appropriate action. You don’t second-guess it.”

Albanese said people also should be their own warning system. If they feel an earthquake that goes on longer than 20 seconds, that’s the sign of a major quake.

“If you feel an earthquake of that duration, if you’re not in a safe area, evacuate,” he said.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

 

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