KODIAK — A pair of false alarm tsunami warnings for Homer and Seldovia have the Kachemak Bay towns looking to Kodiak for a solution.
Last week, the Homer City Council voted to allow the city to opt out of Alaska’s automated tsunami system and adopt a procedure that closely follows the one used in Kodiak, where sirens are sounded manually.
The decision follows false alarms caused by signals issued by the National Weather Service. The false alarms happened during the great Japanese earthquake in March and again June 23, when a magnitude 7.2 earthquake hit the Aleutian Islands.
When a tsunami warning is issued for part of Alaska, automated sirens sound across the state, even in areas that may not be affected immediately. That can cause problems, especially when the warnings are canceled before the sirens sound, said Homer city manager Walt Wrede.
“We had pretty much a riot here in Homer … with people trying to get off the Spit and to high ground,” he said. “We don’t want people to get cynical about the sirens.”
State and federal officials agree with Homer’s move to a manual system, Wrede said.
“Both NOAA and the state homeland security department have weighed in and said that until the software is upgraded and they can do regional warnings, they think what we’re doing is the best way to go,” he said.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough is examining the
possibility of following Homer’s strategy borough-wide, Kenai Peninsula Borough emergency director Eric Morhmann said.
Mohrmann said he’s been in contact with warning system operators in Sitka and with Kodiak police chief T.C. Kamai.
In Kodiak, authority to sound a tsunami warning rests with Kodiak city manager Aimée Kniaziowski, Kamai said.
“By joint agreement between the city and the borough, the city manager functions as emergency services director,” he said.
The switch to activate the siren is in the police dispatch center, where dispatchers have access to the latest earthquake bulletins from a variety of sources, he said.
While Kodiak residents have grown accustomed to the regular 2 p.m. Wednesday siren test, they have not heard a true alarm in almost two decades, Kamai said.
“The last time I know for sure we activated it was ’91 or ’92. … I want to say we’ve come close a couple of times.”
Kodiak has never been part of the automatic warning network, Kamai said, in part because its sirens and equipment are older.
“One of our advantages is we can service it and maintain it locally with local folks,” he said. “We didn’t want to have to fly in Outside people and order parts.”
The cutting edge can cut both ways, as proved by Homer’s experience, he said.
“The newer system would have given us the ability to rely on automated alerts, and we could have found ourselves in the same position that the Kenai Peninsula Borough was in.”
And older doesn’t mean worse, Kamai said.
“About maybe four years ago, we received a grant from the (Alaska) Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to have our tsunami warning system evaluated. They found that … they wouldn’t recommend replacing it.”
Contact Mirror editor James Brooks at editor@kodiak