Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 9:58 PM on Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tsunami provides real-life learning experience on southern peninsula


Emergency officials this week evaluated a tsunami alert March 10 that gave Kachemak Bay and lower Cook Inlet communities a brief scare and lit up the phones at the Homer Police Department.

Ironically, three days before the tsunami Gov. Sean Parnell declared March 20-26 Tsunami Awareness Week, in recognition of the March 27, 1964 Alaska earthquake that killed 106 Alaskans. Officials canceled a tsunami alert exercise planned for this week before last week's real event happened.

"It didn't result in any property damage or injury," Kenai Peninsula Borough Officer of Emergency Management Director Eric Mohrmann said of last week's alert. "It also gave us a real world experience ... From that we learned quite a bit."

After a 9.0 earthquake hit at 8:46 p.m. March 10 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 and Nanwalek, as well as other coastal communities. Since there was a tsunami warning for the Aleutian Islands west of Amchitka Pass to Attu, the state sounded a warning to evacuate to higher ground for all of Alaska.

Because of a radio reception error, a siren in Port Graham failed to sound. Officials contacted the Port Graham volunteer fire department chief and tribal officials, said Mohrmann. Neighbors in Nanwalek also alerted people in the nearby town.

A voice message following the siren issued a warning telling people to evacuate low-lying areas and to tune in to radio and television, but not everyone heard the message clearly.

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

The earthquake and a 23-foot tsunami killed thousands and caused widespread damage in Japan. Workers at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant struggled to control nuclear fuel cores and prevent further releases of radioactive materials. The cores began overheating after the tsunami damaged a back-up diesel generator that provided power for water pumps.

State officials said they do not expect radioactive material to reach Alaska in sufficient enough quantities to cause health concerns, the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the Division of Health and Social Services said in a joint release. Light rain and snow should partially clear the atmosphere of escaped radiation, and a high-altitude jet stream flowing south of Alaska will carry any other particles away from the state.

About a half hour after the sirens sounded, emergency managers determined the lower Kenai Peninsula was not threatened by a tsunami and did not order an evacuation. An advisory means strong currents or waves could be dangerous to people in or near water and may be hazardous to swimmers and boats, but significant, widespread inundation is not expected.

Tim Dillon, Seldovia city manager, confirmed the sirens went off in Seldovia, on the south side of Kachemak Bay.

"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 3 feet and strictly a tsunami advisory, not a warning," said Dillon.

A tsunami wave of less than 1 foot hit Homer about 5:08 a.m. last 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.

The tsunami alarm caused concern at Land's End Resort, a large hotel at the end of the Homer Spit. Hearing the alarm, Land's End Resort CEO Mike Dye immediately contacted the Homer Police Department.

"They agreed to take my cell phone number and call me if the threat increased," said Dye.

He contacted staff at the resort and then continued to spend the next several hours watching CNN reports on the tsunami and earthquake and checking for updates from the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center's website.

"I basically stayed up until roughly 4 a.m.," said Dye. "I watched the reports projecting activity in Hawaii for about a half hour and there was very minimal activity."

Not all residents further away from the beaches heard the sirens. Brenda Dolma, a self-professed deep sleeper who lives near the high school, 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," she said.

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 the 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.

One glitch was that public radio station KBBI 890 AM did not receive Office of Emergency Management emergency e-mails until after requesting information, said General Manager Dave Anderson.

"It was a frustrating night. A long night with very little sleep," he said. "I think there was a certain lack of communication."

Anderson saw news of the earthquake on TV at the Anchor River Inn after he stopped off there on his way home from a KBBI board meeting. He told his staff to head to the station. Program director Terry Rensel and news director Aaron Selbig started putting out messages as they got information. The Emergency Alert System also activated about midnight and went out on KBBI's signal.

At Monday's city council meeting, Homer Mayor James Hornaday expressed his concern with the lack of notification.

"I didn't get a call, an e-mail. It was a total failure of the warning system, as far as I can see," said Hornaday. "I've had all kinds of people call me and say what a failure it was. ... It was more than a learning experience. This whole town could have been wiped out."

Emergency managers, including Robl, Wrede, and Mohrmann all came on duty. Homer Fire Chief Bob Painter had been in Soldotna Thursday night and drove down to Homer after hearing of the tsunami warning.

On Tuesday morning, state, federal and local officials held a teleconference to sort out what happened with the tsunami alert.

"We had a very open and frank discussion," Mohrmann said. "There are some inherent complications with the siren system and how it activated."

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.

"That's the upside," Wrede said. "People paid attention to them."

So that no siren fails, the warning towers receive multiple messages, Mohrmann said. The siren towers have distinctive saucer-shaped speakers and can be seen along Homer's coast from Bishop's Beach to the Spit. Except for Port Graham, all of Alaska's sirens went off.

Because the western Aleutian Islands had a tsunami warning, that was the initial statewide message. Sending out a consistent, worst-case scenario alert saves precious time, Mohrmann said.

"We don't know whether we're going to have five minutes or five hours," he said.

A nearby earthquake or a collapse of Augustine Volcano during an eruption won't give people near the beaches much time to escape. A brochure available at the fire hall advises people to map evacuation routes and get to higher ground if at elevations 50 feet or lower.

"If there's a significant shake in low lying areas, don't hang around," Mohrmann said.

As part of Tsunami Awareness Week, the Office of Emergency Management provides emergency preparedness information from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday at the Homer Public Library conference room.

Mohrmann advised Alaskans to prepare emergency kits that include food, water, warm clothing, sleeping bags and medicine. A portable radio that can receive the weather and alert channel also is a good idea. NOMAR, Redden Marine and Ulmer's Drug and Hardware all sell such radios for under $50. NOMAR and Ulmer's also have a radio that has a solar cell and hand-crank generator.

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


Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management

West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center


National Weather Service Alaska


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