Quake-savvy Alaskans admit to being rattled by tsunami fears

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — When it comes to earthquakes, Alaskans are major pros. But even they get rattled by the strong ones, as Tuesday’s early morning shaker proved.

In the popular cruise-ship town of Seward, about 110 miles south of Anchorage, Fire Chief Eddie Athey said the quake lasted for up to 90 seconds.

“It went on long enough that you start thinking to yourself, ‘Boy, I hope this stops soon because it’s just getting worse,’” Athey said.

The magnitude 7.9 quake in the Gulf of Alaska triggered the jarring alert that roused people shortly after midnight Tuesday. Even for Alaskans accustomed to tsunami threats and tsunami drills, the phone message was alarming. It read: “Emergency Alert. Tsunami danger on the coast. Go to high ground or move inland. Listen to local news.”

After the alert, people grabbed blankets and suitcases and hustled to evacuation centers or schools in the middle of the night.

 

The monster waves never materialized, but people who fled endured hours of tense waiting before they were cleared to return home.

Tina Anderson, clerk of the Aleutians East Borough, was awakened by the quake at her home in Sand Point, an island fishing community about 570 miles southwest of Anchorage. Anderson, who lives on high ground, called friends in vulnerable areas to make sure they moved to an evacuation center at the school or to friends with homes on higher ground.

A short while later, a police officer drove through the lower-lying parts of the community with his siren blaring and a loudspeaker telling people to evacuate.

People monitored the event by social media.

“Everyone was on Facebook, seeing what was going on,” Anderson said. “I was monitoring, actually, the Kodiak Police Department Facebook page. They were posting things regularly. I knew we were after them if something were to hit.”

When Sand Point Police Chief Hal Henning learned the projected tsunami landfall was 2 a.m., he jumped into his patrol car to start alerting residents to move to high ground, starting with people sleeping on boats in the harbor or at the seafood processing plant.

Winds gusting to 60 mph (97 kph) made it hard to hear community warning sirens. The patrol car siren and loudspeaker siren were easier to hear, he said. Some people walked to the emergency center at the school. Others drove, offering pedestrians rides in the back of pickups and flatbed trucks, Henning said. Eventually hundreds of people crowded into the school gymnasium.

“I would say it was a huge success,” Henning said of the evacuation.

There were no reports of damage, not even on Kodiak Island, the closest land to the epicenter. Tuesday’s quake was recorded at 12:32 a.m. in the Pacific Ocean about 170 miles southeast of Kodiak, home to one of the nation’s largest Coast Guard bases.

It prompted the warning across thousands of miles of Alaska’s southern coast, from Attu in the Aleutian Islands to Canada’s border with Washington state. Kodiak is about 200 miles (321 kilometers) south of Anchorage, the state’s largest city, which was not under a tsunami threat. Elsewhere in the United States, Washington state, Oregon, California and Hawaii were under tsunami watches, which eventually were lifted. Officials in Japan say there was no tsunami threat there.

In Alaska, people reported on social media that the quake was felt hundreds of miles away in Anchorage. Reports varied about how long the quake’s shaking lasted, depending on location.

The quake was a type that usually produces less vertical motion, which means less chance for waves to build for a tsunami, said Paul Earle, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. That was somewhat unusual, because quakes in the area usually are a type that cause more vertical motion and increase the chance for a tsunami, he said.

The quake was the planet’s strongest since an 8.2 magnitude in Mexico in September.

Kodiak resident Ted Panamarioff survived Alaska’s 1964 earthquake, which was magnitude 9.2 and generated tsunamis that killed 129 people and wreaked widespread devastation — events that remain vivid in the memories of many Alaskans. Panamarioff’s father died in the ensuing tsunami, he said.

To Panamarioff, Tuesday’s quake felt far milder, although it did wake him up.

He was never worried about killer waves. His home, he said, is too far inland.

“If anything happened, if there was a tsunami, it’d have to be one hell of a big tsunami to get me where I’m at,” he said. “And then there wouldn’t be a city left.”

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