Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:40 PM on Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Officials can't explain alert mishap

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

State and local officials this week questioned the National Weather Service's response last Thursday to a tsunami warning issued by the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center after a 7.3-earthquake struck the Aleutian Islands. City Manager Walt Wrede said he would be meeting soon with Homer Police Chief Mark Robl and Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Painter to explore if the city should take over control of the borough-operated warning towers on the Homer Spit, Douglas Drive and Bishop's Beach.

That system failed when:

• The National Weather Radio did not send out a tone to trigger the Emergency Alert System when the tsunami warning center sent out its warning at 7:15 p.m., and

• After the tsunami warning center canceled its warning at 8:18 p.m., the National Weather Radio did signal a tone, triggering sirens in Homer and other Kenai Peninsula Borough coastal cities, causing a false alarm and an unneeded evacuation.

Officials with the National Weather Service, Alaska Region, don't know why the tone went off late.

"We're trying to get to the bottom of that," said NWS deputy director Amy Devaris. "There's no question there were some problems with the statewide alert."

The tone can be sent to individual weather station transmitters.

That was done for the Dutch Harbor station, triggering sirens in a timely manner.

Mayor James Hornaday did not spare his criticism at the Homer City Council meeting Monday night when Eric Mohrmann, director of the borough Office of Emergency Management, spoke to the council about the false alert.

"I'm just amazed at how screwed up this is," Hornaday said. "It has never worked right. Why can't the borough get a piece of equipment that actually works?"

Mohrmann defended the siren system — at least the technical end of it.

"The way this system is designed, it received a signal and it went off," he said. "The system worked."

Under the state's emergency response plan, whenever the tsunami warning center issues a warning anywhere in the state, the National Weather Radio tone should go out, triggering the EAS and the sirens. As happened March 10 with a similar siren warning after the Japanese earthquake, Homer had never been in danger from a tsunami and no warning for other than the Aleutian Islands had been issued.

The EAS tone could go out by region, but some tsunami-vulnerable communities don't have the capability of receiving a regional tone, Devaris said.

"A statewide alert is the only way to get all communities an alert," she said.

The National Weather Service is looking into getting alerts to all villages if a regional alert is given out. There had been talks about doing that before.

"Certainly this event will reinvigorate those conversations," Devaris said.

Mohrmann told the council the city had another option: taking over control and responsibility of the Homer warning sirens and loudspeakers. Homer dispatchers would have to be available 24 hours a day to monitor tsunami warning center notices and know how to interpret that information and sound the sirens.

"We can reduce the possibility of false alarms by taking it off the radio system, but that increases the possibility of an error by putting it on the local dispatchers," Mohrmann said last week.

Wrede said he'll discuss with Robl and Painter if the city is ready to take on that responsibility and report back to the council.

Hornaday complained about garbled messages from the warning towers. Because the loudspeakers sent out messages at the same time from all towers, there can be an echo and the message might not be clear. Mohrmann said he'll be talking to the vendor to see if the message can go out sequentially from each tower.

From the borough and city end, officials managed the situation properly. Mohrmann got the tsunami warning as an email on his mobile phone and was at his office by 7:35 p.m. He contacted emergency responders in Homer, Seldovia and Seward and kept them informed of the potential tsunami danger. Mohrmann also knew the tone had not gone out and knew when the warning was canceled, and kept local officials informed. After the false siren went off, the borough sent out a Rapid Notify, or reverse-911, message to all phone landlines informing citizens of the error (see timeline, page X).

The false warning caused some panic and distress in Homer as hundreds of people on the Homer Spit and in low-lying areas evacuated.

"People were running down this boardwalk with clothes falling out of their luggage and heading for the high road," said Jimmy Lower, owner of Boss Hoggz Restaurant on the Big Bear Boardwalk. "The cars were lined up all the way to Coal Point. People were honking and kind of panicking."

The warning message said to listen to local radio stations for updates.

Dave Anderson, general manager for KBBI AM-890, had heard the sirens go off while he was eating at AJ's Old Town Steakhouse. He went to KBBI and met program director Terry Rensel there to start getting information out. Anderson sent out alerts about every 3 minutes as he and Rensel got more information. Anderson found out the warning had been canceled by going to the tsunami warning center website. KBBI staff fielded calls at the station.

"The phones were just going nuts," Anderson said.

Police also got numerous calls, but had three dispatchers on duty to handle the extra load.

Authorities knew that the sirens sounded incorrectly and the tsunami warning had been canceled, Robl said. Officers went to the Spit.

"We were just going out to try to calm people down," he said.

People needed calming down.

"It was definitely very scary, especially for the campers," Lower said. "Some guy was coming out of a camper with his pants off and tripping down there."

Some people evacuating the Spit drove along Ocean Drive and over Beluga Slough to evacuate. The recommended route is to turn right off the Spit onto Kachemak Drive and continue toward high ground.

Kachemak Emergency Services Chief Bob Cicciarella said some evacuees followed his fire truck after they turned onto East End Road from Kachemak Drive. He was driving East End Road after returning from training last Thursday night in Anchor Point. Cicciarella didn't know they were behind him until he arrived at the KES McNeil Canyon Fire Station near Mile 11 East End Road.

"There was a line of cars that came in behind us," he said. "They followed us from the Spit."

Mohrmann apologized for the unneeded evacuation for Homer residents and visitors.

"I feel bad for the people down there who heard this and disrupted their lives and were very concerned. I regret that occurred," Mohrmann said. "However, what's better? To have something like this that occurs or have an actual tsunami and they're not getting any warning at all?"

A small tsunami was generated by the earthquake, with a wave about 2 inches at Midway Island, 2.5 inches at Adak and 3.8 inches at Nikolski, said Guy Urban, a geophysicist with the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.

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