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Tsunami sirens, how serious?

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 5, 2015

HOMER -- For several days various news media reported that on Wednesday, March 25, there would be a test of the tsunami warning system in coastal Alaska. We're accustomed to sirens once a month here, on Wednesdays at 1 p.m., always with the key word "test." This was to be a little different -- at an earlier time and supposedly with more realism as part of Tsunami Preparedness Week.

By my clock it was 10:25 in the morning when the familiar sirens sounded, echoing from the multiple speakers in Homer's low-lying areas. "A tsunami warning has been issued for this area. Tune to a local radio station for details." The message repeated three times. There was no mention of a test.

Good citizen that I am, I turned on my radio, to public station KBBI. I listened to several minutes of regular programming, an NPR show called "Bullseye."

Seven minutes passed before a live announcer interrupted the show to tell listeners that the sirens were "just testing warnings" and there was "no danger present at the moment."

At an altitude of 500 feet, I live above the tsunami evacuation zone, and I wasn't worried about a giant wave bearing down on me. But I had to wonder if there weren't at least a few people departing Homer Spit in a panic while listening to the radio's joyous hip-hop music and wondering, what the #$%^?

Two more minutes passed before a garbled voice came over the tsunami speakers. I couldn't make out the message, except for the last word, which seemed to be "complete."

Tsunamis are no joke, and one might think that a preparedness test could have been better managed by all involved. Let's hope that lessons were learned. And that people hearing sirens in the future won't assume they're always tests. We should never forget that the tsunami accompanying Alaska's 1964 earthquake killed 106 Alaskans and wiped out the entire waterfronts of several communities.

Locally, we've had at least one false alarm from the system, when a tsunami warning meant for the Aleutians sounded in Homer in 2011. According to the Homer News, "hundreds of people on the Homer Spit and in low-lying areas evacuated." Police fanned out around town to alert people that the warning was in error.

The most serious tsunami threat for Homer might be Augustine Volcano, the island 70 miles to our west. Augustine last erupted in 2006, sending up an ash cloud and oozing enough lava to build a new summit. It's this summit enhancement on steep slopes that makes the volcano "top-heavy" and vulnerable to collapse. In 1883 -- before Homer's founding -- an eruption caused its north side to slide into Cook Inlet, sending a 30-foot wave into the village of Nanwalek. Scientists have found evidence of similar collapses going back thousands of years.

Fortunately for its residents, Anchorage is not a candidate for tsunami hazards. According to the Tsunami Warning Center, the shape and shallowness of upper Cook Inlet render the threat "extremely low."

For now, it's a good idea to keep the seismic sensors operating on Augustine -- and on volcanoes and fault lines throughout Alaska. As Alaskans, we should know to be prepared for any natural disaster, anytime.

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming."

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