A photo taken from Skyline Drive at about 11:20 p.m. Saturday, July 15, 2023, shows vehicles evacuating from the Homer Spit after a tsunami warning was issued. The warning did not affect the Homer area, but sirens sounded anyway. The warning was later canceled. (Photo by Shannon Cefalu/courtesy)

A photo taken from Skyline Drive at about 11:20 p.m. Saturday, July 15, 2023, shows vehicles evacuating from the Homer Spit after a tsunami warning was issued. The warning did not affect the Homer area, but sirens sounded anyway. The warning was later canceled. (Photo by Shannon Cefalu/courtesy)

Tsunami alert, mixed messages trigger evacuation in Homer

Southwest earthquake lights up peninsula phones Saturday

Around 11 p.m. Saturday night, cellphones around the Kenai Peninsula lit up with a siren.

“The National Weather Service has issued a tsunami warning,” the notification read. “You are in danger.”

Mixed messages

In the space of roughly an hour following, public entities would communicate guidance to residents via text and via social media, with two major entities giving very different messages. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management told residents of Kachemak Bay to evacuate, while the Homer Police Department said there was no cause for concern in the local area.

The first message, which was sent at 10:50 p.m. as a push notification or a call to cellphones around the area, was issued by the state via the Wireless Emergency Alerts system after the warning was implemented by the federally operated National Weather Service.

Any time a tsunami warning is issued by the state, it automatically puts into effect a response by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management, KPB Emergency Manager Brenda Ahlberg said Monday.

That automatic response means they manually activate tsunami sirens in the area under warning every 10 minutes until an all-clear comes through.

Homer Police Department Lt. Ryan Browning said Monday that according to the initial report they received from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the warning was only issued for areas far south of Homer.

Saturday’s warning was issued in response to a magnitude 7.2 earthquake in the western Gulf of Alaska, and for a wide swath of the southwestern coast of Alaska, stretching out along the Alaska Peninsula, covering Kodiak, and north to Kennedy Entrance, a channel of water south of the Kenai Peninsula around 40 miles southwest of Homer.

That’s why, as early as 11:01 p.m., HPD was posting to Facebook, telling Homer residents “you do not need to evacuate.” Browning said they “double-checked” with NOAA’s Tsunami Warning Center around 20 minutes later, and they “again reiterated Kachemak Bay was not in the warning.”

Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said Tuesday that the department received over roughly an hour and a half more than 100 calls, from a mix of locals and tourists, looking for updates on the situation.

Ahlberg said the initial state-issued alert, which was distributed to Kenai Peninsula residents, activated borough protocol. Though the text of the warning didn’t include the borough, Ahlberg said Tuesday that some of the information published by the weather service did — like a map of the affected area that identifies the whole western Kenai Peninsula as being under the warning and directed residents to evacuate as far north as Hope.

“It is our responsibility to eliminate conflicting messaging before issuing an all-clear,” she wrote.

Ushering an evacuation

Homer Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins was part of the city’s emergency response team on Saturday, working with the city’s communications coordinator, the city manager and the fire chief at the Homer Volunteer Fire Department in setting up an Emergency Operations Center to monitor the ongoing emergency and put together a planned response.

The EOC did not need to take any direct action Saturday night, Hawkins said. Rather, they coordinated with the KPB Office of Emergency Management and state agencies to receive firsthand information and push updated communications to the city website and local radio stations, including KBBI and KGTL.

“Right away we could see it looking like we were not going to be in that position of full evacuation for very long,” Hawkins said Tuesday. “Initially they issued the evacuation warning and we followed that, but pretty quickly we were getting information that they were going to call off the evacuation. We waited for the all-clear from the borough, who got it from the state, and posted that.”

Hawkins noted that during the evacuation, people progressed in an orderly manner out of the lowlands to get above the inundation zone.

“The signage worked. We didn’t receive a lot of questions about ‘where can I go.’ People seem to be more familiar with that,” he said.

Heritage RV Park manager Sherry Mitchell said Tuesday that at least half of the campers in the fully booked Spit campground evacuated when the warnings were issued, despite information coming from HPD that an evacuation was not mandatory. Leaving the majority of their belongings behind, campers parked at the post office or drove to the top of Baycrest Hill for safety, according to Mitchell.

“Not everyone came back that night,” Mitchell said. “Some did, but otherwise they came back the next day to pick up their belongings.”

Mitchell was at home when the warning was issued, and in the 20 minutes it took for her to reach the RV park on the Spit, everyone had already left and there was hardly any traffic, she said.

“In the event of an actual tsunami, they actually had pretty good timing,” Mitchell said.

After the active warning was issued, HPD sent officers to the Spit to monitor traffic.

“There was a steady stream of cars coming off the Spit,” Robl said. “But the process went smoothly; we didn’t have any accidents despite the volume of traffic. People were orderly and making good decisions.”

Robl also noted that officers were present on the Spit to advise campers and residents that evacuation was not mandatory.

“Once we received official word that it was not a mandatory evacuation for [Homer], we spread the word as quickly as we could,” he said.

‘Dynamic’ information

Ahlberg said that in any emergency situation where the office may be charged with directing an evacuation, information is “dynamic.” They work to put out the latest and most accurate information from the most credible sources.

“We’ll always change,” Ahlberg said. The goal is to get the best information to the public — consistent, accurate information.

Via their Facebook account and text messaging system, KPB Alerts, the Office of Emergency Management released a series of four posts with information as it developed and as it became available from NOAA and the National Tsunami Warning Center. Around 11:20, the office told residents of Kachemak Bay coastal communities to “evacuate to higher ground now.” Around 11:30, they reported that an all clear had been issued for Homer and for the bay.

Texts from KPB Alerts are based on a geographical system and were only distributed to those in the areas identified as being at risk — residents also have to enroll themselves in the program. Ahlberg said that means lots of people got the state-issued tsunami warning, far fewer received the all clear.

The Office of Emergency Management and other local authorities, including the Homer Police, were scheduled to meet Wednesday for an after-action debrief.

Ahlberg said Monday that the situation made clear the value in unified messaging, but that in any situation people will need to take the information that they have available and make the best decision possible for their own safety. A similar sentiment was expressed by the Homer Police on Facebook, where they wrote, “if you feel like getting to higher ground is right for you when sirens are blaring, then go for a drive. You can’t go wrong.”

Borough residents should recognize warning signs beyond official communications from the government, Ahlberg said. If an earthquake lasts longer than 10 seconds or if the water is visibly receding from the coastline, they should prepare to move to higher ground.

The warning was downgraded to an advisory close to midnight, and canceled entirely close to 1 a.m. According to NOAA, a wave generated by the earthquake did make landfall around 1 a.m. in King Cove and Sand Point — both located in Southwest Alaska. It was only a half-foot tall.

To register for KPB Alerts, visit my.kpb.us/alerts. For more information, or to view alerts posted to social media, visit facebook.com/KPBAlerts.

The most recent Homer tsunami hazard information compiled by the City of Homer in coordination with the State of Alaska and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Earthquake Center can be found at www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/sites/default/files/fileattachments/emergency_information/page/44301/know_your_tsunami_hazard_in_homer_11x17.pdf.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com. Reach reporter Delcenia Cosman at delcenia.cosman@homernews.com.

A graphic showing the affected area of a tsunami warning issued late Saturday night. The warning would be canceled around two hours after this graphic was published. (Photo courtesy National Weather Service)

A graphic showing the affected area of a tsunami warning issued late Saturday night. The warning would be canceled around two hours after this graphic was published. (Photo courtesy National Weather Service)

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