Powerful undersea quake shakes Alaska

A night that began with a dramatic 7.9 magnitude earthquake and the threat of region-wide tsunamis ended quietly for the Kenai Peninsula — with coastal residents returning from shelters unscathed and infrastructure largely undamaged by what could have been a devastating natural disaster.

The powerful quake, which was downgraded after the fact by the U.S. Geological Service from an initial estimate of 8.2 magnitude, struck about 175 miles southeast of Kodiak at 12:32 a.m. on Tuesday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Coastal communities on the peninsula and across the Gulf of Alaska, including Kodiak, Homer, Seward, Valdez, Cordova and Unalaska, received middle-of-the-night warnings on an impending tsunami, while Hawaii and the Canadian and American west coast, including Washington, Oregon and California, were told to be on alert for potential tsunamis.

Coastal residents seek high ground

In Seward, several hundred of the 4500 town residents from low-lying areas made their way to schools and evacuation buildings or drove out of town to highways above flood areas.

“Many folks sat in their cars, listening to the radios waiting for the all clear,” Fire Chief Eddie Athey said.

Athey said emergency service crews suited up in fire gear and canvassed neighborhoods below the 50-foot evacuation zones, but didn’t have to knock on doors. Many residents were already on their way out.

“Many folks have taken to heart that if we have an earthquake more than 30 seconds, don’t wait for the sirens. They just evacuate,” Athey said.

Seward City Clerk Brenda Ballou said she woke up to the earth shaking, and then began receiving tsunami warning alerts on her phone.

“My neighbors were starting their cars, and I’m assuming everybody was sort of on alert or getting text messages about it,” she said.

Ballou said the Seward evacuation went smoothly, with elderly and infirm being taken to safe areas, and residents using the city hall — which sits at 50 feet above sea level — as a barometer for how high up they needed to move.

“We have clearly defined tsunami evacuation routes in town,” she said. “We’re plugged into the tsunami siren alert system, and we do practices.”

Athey said they didn’t give the all clear until after 3:30 a.m. when they got word from the Tsunami Warning Center that the threat had passed. Because the earthquake took place at night, Athey said he wasn’t able to confirm any waves larger than usual had hit the coast in Seward, but said no damage had yet been reported.

In Homer, police officers drove around the evacuation areas with sirens on and lights flashing to advise people to leave. Many residents drove up West Hill and East Hill Road in search of higher ground. About 40 residents and their pets congregated at Homer High School, which the city opened as a shelter. Another 20 more took refuge at South Peninsula Hospital.

Down at the Homer Harbor, a decidedly low-lying area, Deputy Harbor Master Matt Clarke said personnel were also evacuating people on the Homer Spit.

As soon as the tsunami warning for coastal Alaska was downgraded to an advisory at 3:12 a.m., Clarke said he and another members of the harbor returned to survey for any potential damage, starting with the roads.

Clarke said that when he completed his initial assessment by about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, he had found no damage. He said other harbor personnel were conducting a more thorough assessment during daylight hours Tuesday.

Northern Peninsula sustains minimal damage

In Kenai, which was not included in the tsunami warning area but still received a strong jolt from the earthquake, police fielded phone calls from concerned residents about what to do, but didn’t get any requests for emergency response, Lieutenant Ben Langham said.

“Really nothing was disrupted,” he said. “It didn’t result in more calls for service for police response.”

Langham said police hadn’t received any reports of damage from the quake.

The Red Cross, which has a team on the peninsula, was on standby and stayed in contact with local emergency agencies in case there was a need for emergency shelter, but similarly didn’t receive any requests for help, Lisa Miller, chief development officer for Red Cross of Alaska, said.

Coordinating a response

Dan Nelson, program manager for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management, spent most of Tuesday night coordinating with local agencies until the office stood down at about 4:20 a.m.

“It was definitely a long night,” Nelson said.

After the Tsunami Warning Center sent out an alert, emergency management put into action its Rapid Notify system, which sends out alerts to landlines and registered cell phones. Nelson that while the Office of Emergency Management oversees operations and communicates with state and local agencies, municipalities were the ones on the ground doing the hard work of getting people to safety.

“They did a phenomenal response,” Nelson sad.

Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce was in contact with the Office of Emergency Management throughout the night, John Quick, chief of staff for the mayor, said.

Quick said that while there were no major snafus and the overall emergency response was successful, the mayor’s office had received calls that the emergency notification system didn’t reach everyone.  

In Homer, some residents noticed that the borough alert calls did not come in until around 3 a.m., close to when the event was drawing to a close and many had already evacuated.

“We received a couple calls where the emergency notification system for people’s phones didn’t work correctly,” Quick said. “We’re going to be looking into that, going to make sure that if it’s in our power, we’ll fix it.”

Overall, Nelson said he hasn’t had a chance to analyze every aspect of the emergency response, but said l he felt it was a success.

“The systems worked, and people responded very, very well, and took it seriously,” he said.

Michael Armstrong, Megan Pacer and Elizabeth Earl contributed to this report.

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