Kodiak residents heed tsunami warning

showing around 50 people of all ages gathered in a building foyer

Kodiak residents huddle at the local high school in the early morning hours of Jan. 23 after a powerful earthquake shook many parts of coastal Alaska and triggered tsunami warnings. Photo by Astrid Rose.

Astrid Rose was fast asleep early Tuesday when a massive undersea earthquake jolted her out of bed.

The Kodiak resident knew what was happening and started getting her family up and out the door. The 7.9 quake, centered about 175 miles southeast of Kodiak, felt particularly strong and seemed to last forever.

“It felt like an eternity,” said Rose, a program assistant with Alaska Sea Grant who has lived on Kodiak Island for three decades.

The wail of tsunami sirens blasted across town, warning people to move to higher ground.

“My house is right on the water. We knew we had to evacuate,” Rose said.

Rose, her husband, son and cousin packed into their car and headed uphill toward the high school, an emergency evacuation center. They passed a gas station packed with motorists.

“The gas station was chockablock full of cars. People were filling up so they could go and idle and wait it out.”

Traffic isn’t usually a problem on the remote island of some 6,000 residents. But the early morning quake triggered mass evacuations in several coastal communities, and Kodiak’s streets were jammed.

People were also fleeing on foot, including cannery workers, many with limited English language skills, who seemed somewhat dazed and confused, Rose said.

woman and boy in parkas smiling

Astrid Rose, Alaska Sea Grant program assistant and her son, Silas, on the morning after they evacuated their home in Kodiak due to an earthquake and tsunami warning. Photo courtesy of Astrid Rose.

“As we were pulling into the parking lot we were listening to public radio. They said the tsunami was supposed to make landfall at 1:45 a.m.,” she said.

Rose walked the halls of the high school looking for a radio but could not find one. She tried streaming KMXT, the local radio station, but found it didn’t work. She went to the federal Tsunami Warning Center but found a banner indicating that the website wasn’t being updated because of the government shutdown.

People were posting misinformation and speculation on social media which Rose found frustrating.

“There was no reliable source of information at that point. Just rumors on Facebook.”

Eventually she found the Kodiak Police Department’s Facebook page, which was posting updates.

“If this ever happens again, I’ll know to check with KPD,” she said.

After the 1:45 a.m. landfall prediction came and went with no sign of a tsunami, people waited for a couple of hours and then started heading home.

Kodiak resident Quentin Fong, a seafood marketing specialist with Alaska Sea Grant, stayed put in his home during the event. He lives on higher ground.

“When I bought the house, I made sure it was above the 100-foot mark. I also wanted to be away from the ocean and close to the Coast Guard base,” said Fong, a professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

The 100-foot mark Fong referred to is the elevation point people are urged to flee above in the event of a tsunami. It’s considered to be above the inundation zone.

kodiak alaska 1964

The city of Kodiak following inundation by seismic sea waves caused by the 1964 Alaska earthquake. The small-boat harbor contained an estimated 160 fishing boats when the tsunamis struck, washing vessels into the heart of Kodiak. Photo: U.S. Navy.

Fong and his wife have planned for earthquakes and tsunamis. They keep at least five days of water and food and other supplies packed in totes that they “can throw over the balcony without breaking anything.”
“We also have a hand-cranked radio that we can monitor updates on shortwave radio with,” Fong said.

Both Rose and Fong said they were grateful that the tsunami didn’t materialize, especially in light of what happened in 1964 when a 9.2 earthquake struck Prince William Sound. The quake lasted 4 1/2 minutes and triggered a series of deadly tsunamis.