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How Alaskans scrambled for higher ground after 7.5 quake

Ned Rozell
Watchstander Bohyun Bahng monitoring data from seismographs, wave heights, and other information at the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska. Jan 11, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center director Paul Whitmore, right, troubleshoots a communication glitch with senior electronic technician Michael Burgy at the Palmer, Alaska facility. Jan 11, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
An analog readout from a local seismograph in Palmer, Alaska, is fed directly to the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center. It is the only analog data the center gets, and can alert the watchstanders to an event a few seconds before digital data coming from other stations. Jan 11, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Four telephones, including a red battery-powered satellite phone, are used whenever the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center predicts a tsunami and needs to inform relevant authorities. Jan 11, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
The site of a seismic monitoring station in Palmer, Alaska, located a few blocks from the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center. Jan 11, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A map showing all the seismographic stations that feed information to the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, with an alert highlighting a recent event in the Aleutian Islands. Jan 11, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Watchstander Dave Nyland monitors earthquake activity at the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska. Two watchstanders are on duty at all times. Jan 11, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Watchstander Bohyun Bahng holding an analog printout of an earthquake recorded on a local seismograph. The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska has a station a few blocks away. Jan 11, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Watchstander Bohyun Bahng with the computer that is used to model tsunami paths. Jan 11, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

SITKA -- Around midnight on Jan. 4, Kathleen Brandt felt an earthquake at her home in Sitka. As framed pictures trembled and then fell from the walls, she started counting. “I got to 22 seconds before the shaking stopped,” Brandt said. The 45-year resident of this historic Southeast community told her earthquake story following a recent community presentation there by Natalia Ruppert. Ruppert is a seismologist with the Geophysical Institute’s Alaska Earthquake Information Center. Jim Baichtal of the U.S. Forest Service, who lives in Thorne Bay, invited Ruppert to southeast Alaska to speak to locals who wanted answers about the shaking.

Following two meetings in Craig and Sitka during which Ruppert answered questions about the large earthquake and the weeks of aftershocks that followed, Southeast residents shared a few stories that showed their tsunami savvy.

Scurrying to golf course

In the middle of that dark January evening, Brandt rousted her sleeping husband, Harvey. She did so because she remembered a fall visit from a scientist who recommended moving to high ground after an earthquake lasting for 20 seconds or longer. The Brandts pulled on their rubber boots and drove to the clubhouse at nearby Sea Mountain Golf Course, about 60 feet above sea level.

There, they waited out a possible tsunami with other Sitka residents who had left their homes for higher ground. Some had heard the siren activated by Fire Chief Dave Miller after the magnitude 7.5 earthquake had torn the sea floor west of Prince of Wales Island. Others, like Brandt, moved before they heard the siren because they knew it was the right thing to do to avoid possible rising water generated by an offshore earthquake.

Though scientists at the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center issued an official tsunami warning after the Jan. 4 earthquake, located 80 miles offshore of Prince of Wales Island, no tsunami occurred. Why?

There was no noticeable tsunami from the earthquake or the aftershocks that followed because the earthquake was a strike-slip, which features side-to-side motion on a fault in Earth’s crust. A strike-slip doesn’t cause upward thrust of the sea floor that displaces water and shoves it toward shorelines. But the Jan. 4 earthquake was so large that officials couldn’t rule out tsunamis caused by unpredictable landslides into the ocean. That’s exactly when happened when an earthquake shook a mountainside into Lituya Bay in 1958.  Big quakes can also cause steep, silty underwater slopes to collapse, which is what happen to Seward and Valdez during Alaska’s great 1964 earthquake.

“Anytime there’s an offshore earthquake of that size, a tsunami warning makes sense,” said state seismologist Mike West.

Chickens on their own 

Like many people in the small community of Craig, Josh Andrews was in bed around midnight when he heard rumbling and felt shaking. The principal of Craig High School remembered feeling a magnitude 7.7 earthquake in the fall that had an epicenter beneath Haida Gwai, islands in Canada about 150 miles south of Craig.

That memory sprung him into action. He and his wife got out of bed, dressed, and woke their two kids and an exchange student living with them. They called the family dog and fit most of the living creatures into their car. “We left the chickens to fend for themselves,” Andrews said.

Andrews took his family to his pre-planned evacuation center, the city pool in Craig, about 45 feet above sea level. He brought his family home about one hour later when he received an all-clear Twitter message from a Craig emergency manager.

Unlike in Sitka, there was no siren in Craig (it was broken). Andrews got out of bed and moving because he remembered the jolt of the Haida Gwaii earthquake and a basketball from the 2011 Japan tsunami that washed up on Prince of Wales Island.

“I’m not embarrassed that I left my home,” Andrews said. “There’s no downside to moving.”

Ned Rozell is a science writer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute. Used with permission.