SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


We all survived the GREAT TSUNAMI ALERT OF 2012!



October 30, 2012

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska
- Nothing like a relentless wave of tsunami warnings to liven up a calm Saturday night in Our Fair Salmon City. For those of you on Mars for the past couple of days, Ketchikan experienced one of its rare “noticeable” earthquakes Saturday night. A large quake (7.7) off the southern Haida Gwaii (nee Queen Charlotte Islands) 200+ miles to the southwards caused plants to swing and couches to bounce a bit here.
jpg Dave Kiffer

For comparison sake it was the largest Canadian earthquake since 1949. Definitely noteworthy and our thoughts go out to Haida Gwaii coastal cousins.

First a confession. I didn’t notice it. We were sitting around digesting dinner when Charlotte mentioned that the house was shaking. Liam also noted that the couch moved a bit. I grumbled down the stairs to check on the washing machine which was on spin cycle, but it was NOT bouncing maniacally around as it is occasionally wont to do.

Natch, I thought my family members were just being oversensitive. If I am not rolling my eyes at my family members, I am not having a good time. Of course, I was wrong.

A few minutes later, the TV started making those obnoxious mechanical grinding noises (robotic cat in a blender?) that signal an emergency broadcasting alert. Only this time it wasn’t actually a test. It was an honest to God tsunami warning.

Not a watch, not an alert, but a real live warning. And it was a pretty dire one as far as those go, indicating that a wave was “imminent.” But then it took the edge off a little by noting that the “imminent” wave could be expected to arrive in Southern Southeast Alaska in about an hour and 40 minutes or so.

All in all, that was pretty civil of the civil defense folks. Your world is ending, but you have about 100 minutes to sort things out. You can get your affairs in order, you can gorge yourself on some last meal peanut butter cups. Heckfire, you can even seek high ground if you are so inclined.

And for the next three hours, the alerts continued to interrupt “our regular programming” about every ten minutes. The same mechanical grinding noise, the same warning of imminent disaster, the same general time of arrival, say about 9:15 or so depending on location.

I have to admit that all the modern technological improvements were making this a pretty precise disaster. I had to assume that some really cool deep water sensing buoys were measuring the oceanic leviathan’s progress and that the tsunami folks probably knew within an inch or two just how tall a mountain of water was going to slosh up Tongass Narrows and take out half of our town.

Naturally the real community bulletin board – Facebook – sprang into action. There were a gazillion posts about the “quake” and a bazillion posts about the evacuation. Of course, there wasn’t any formal evacuation to speak of. At least as far as we knew.

No sirens, no emergency workers going door to door to clear out the recalcitrant. Certainly we knew from all those Gulf hurricane videos that “holding your ground” in the face of a rising ocean is pretty bad bet. But clearly, locally, we weren’t ready to budge, just yet.

The city rumbled some of their more expensive vehicles to higher ground. The harbor department staff checked on the harbors. Some folks reported they had left their homes on Pennock and were coming to town to wait it out.

The three local fire departments monitored the situation (although the city department had to basically leave its brand new fire station because – ironically – if a wave were to inundate downtown the new fire hall/emergency center would be among the first buildings to go). Basically, the emergency responders headed up to the Civic Center to monitor the tsunami (and enjoy the KRBD Halloween party!).

I briefly went Downtown and things were pretty quiet, a few folks hanging out at the sea level pubs for an up close view of “tsunamaggedon.”

I did check on my 91-year-old mother who lives about 20 feet above sea level, but she did not want to be evacuated.

She reminded me of 1964 when Ketchikan got the Good Friday earthquake tsunami warning and we bundled our family, the cats and the dog into the car and “evacuated” from First Avenue all the way up to……………Third avenue.

We left the goldfish in the house because we figured they could swim for it if the wave hit.

 Which of course it didn’t, because as far as anyone can tell the Ketchikan area has never had a catastrophic tsunami give it a direct hit. We don’t need one because we get a 14 foot “wave” of liquid inundation ever year.

Of course, other areas did get hit by a big wave that year (1964) and we have all seen the charts showing just how many thousands of miles the giant Indonesian tsunami traveled in 2004. So we need to take tsunamis somewhat seriously.

But, as usual, I digress.

I – of course – monitored the computer for any sign that the surf was “up” anywhere up and down the coast and it sure didn’t seem to be.

That – of course - didn’t stop the powers that be from continuing to broadcast the dire warnings about the “imminent” tsunami. Fortunately, our house is about 128 feet above sea level.

But many in KTN are not that fortunate and I did hear that some people were moving to higher ground. I also heard that all of lower lying Metlakatla decided to get a little elevation between it and the “imminent” wave.

We also kept an eye on the national media to see if it would break into its endlessly obsessive coverage of Hurricane Sandy to note our little event. It did.

And that brought a little bit of levity as a national announcer on the Weather Channel mentioned the tsunami alert and then expressed strong concern for the “fate of the thousands of servicemen who are stationed in Alaska.”

I was shocked he didn’t break out in a chorus of “God Bless America.” I made a quick check to see whether Fox News had former Governor Palin on the air blaming the tsunami on President Obama. It didn’t.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure that there weren’t any evacuations at Elmendorf, Richardson and Eielsen, although I bet the folks at the various Coast Guard bases were on alert.

Shortly thereafter, my mother called back to report that my sister in law down in Utah had heard that Ketchikan had been evacuated. I told Mom that, as the Borough mayor, I probably would have heard about such an evacuation but that – at any rate - I would continue to monitor the situation – from my perch 128 feet above sea level.

I asked Mom again if she wanted to be evacuated and she again said no. One doesn’t live nine decades in Ketchikan without being a “risk taker.”

Finally, a four inch “tsunami” rolled into the harbor in Craig and everyone breathed an exasperated sigh of relief. There was no similar inundation reported in Ketchikan.

I say exasperated because the tsunami “alerters” then noted that the 4 inch wave was significantly smaller than the 1 foot wave that had been expected. They also noted that Langara Island (near Prince Rupert) had experienced a 2 foot wave an hour earlier.

Now, I suppose there are times when a one foot wave is significant. For example, if you are lying face down in the sand, you could conceivably drown in an extra one foot of water. But it does lead me to wonder if one foot was worth the jacked up blood pressures the incessant warning messages caused.

Still, it is better to be safer than sorrier, I guess. Imagine if they had said one foot wave had been generated, we had all gone down to the dock to watch it come in and had gotten clocked by something bigger?

There would have been a whole town of Darwin Award winners. Hey, you, Ketchikan! Get out of the Gene Pool. One can only dream.

Naturally, they – the tsunami expertians - also say that different tsunami are created in different areas. It’s the oceanographic equivalent of “your results may vary.”

In Ketchikan, for example, the unique geology could have caused a giant local wave. Which still would have been generally dissipated by all the surrounding islands, but I digress again.

Back to earthquake itself. Like all parts of Alaska, Ketchikan has plenty of little tiny earthquakes but we almost never feel them. So I am pretty put out that I didn’t notice this one.

It’s not that I am immune to feeling the earth move. As recently as a small quake off Craig a few years ago, I noticed the house creak.

It was a quiet afternoon and it sounded like the timbers of the house were stretching and popping after a long nap.

I instantly recognized a sound that I had heard many times when I lived in Southern California in the late 1970s. Not scary, but a little unnerving. The earth is moving and so is my house. There is nothing I can do about it. It will stop soon.

Scary was when I was in a 40 story building in downtown LA one day and entire building started to sway and creak and pop like it was waking up from a long nap. Talk about feeling completely, wet your pants, helpless.

Anyway, I know what an earthquake feels like. And in Ketchikan it feels not unlike a slightly unbalanced washing machine load.

Which is probably just about as intense we really want it to ever get, anyway.

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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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