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False tsunami alarm sends Kenai Peninsula into brief chaos, confusion

Megan Edge
A tsunami hazard zone warning sign. NOAA photo

Tuesday morning saw brief chaos on the Kenai Peninsula and in the borough's Office of Emergency Management as officials hustled to spread the word that an automatic system had cried wolf when it sent a false tsunami warning out across the region. Sirens sounded in Seward, Homer, Port Graham, Nanwalek and Seldovia, according to the borough.

Police across the region also fielded calls from confused and concerned local residents.

"We had a lot of people that could actually be seen running to their vehicles on the spit," said Homer Harbor Master Bryan Hawkins, who claimed to have received more than 30 calls from fishermen and people across Kachemak Bay.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the Anchorage National Weather Service Office sent out a tsunami warning test for the Kenai Peninsula region over weather radio frequencies maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Kenai Peninsula sirens are designed to automatically interpret codes and tones from the NOAA radio messages. Although the automated message came across radio waves as a test, the code feeding into the sirens said something else -- causing the sirens to interpret it as an actual tsunami warning, said Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management program coordinator Dan Nelson.

"There is a couple of ways those sirens get information," said Nelson. "We can do it manually but typically the most reliable way is by the weather radio."

Sam Albanese, the warning coordination meteorologist for the Anchorage National Weather Service office, was adamant the message they sent was only a test. He said it was a glitch in the system and not caused by human error.

Nelson said it only took his office "a couple of minutes" to figure out that the signal was an accident.

"We weren't followed up on any emergency communications, which we normally would be," Nelson said during a phone interview.

Nelson added that the Office of Emergency Management had to manually trigger an "all clear" message. But that didn't stop hundreds of area residents from calling their local police departments.

Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said his department had taken more than 100 calls regarding the alarm. Seward police claimed similar numbers.

"The calls were hot and heavy for a while," said Robl.

The hubbub had calmed down by Tuesday afternoon; Nelson said they'd been working with the Anchorage office to figure out how the signal was sent out.

"We don't want to cry wolf," he said. "When something actually happens we want people to actually listen."

Correction: This story originally credited meteorologist Sam Albanese with saying that the message sent to the Kenai Peninsula was a warning. Albanese actually said the message was a test.