Alaska's tsunami warning center bolsters Hawaii's defense against disaster

Alaska's tsunami warning center bolsters Hawaii's defense against disaster
William Knight
William Knight
Claude Denver
Claude Denver

By Malika Dudley - bio | email

PALMER, AK (HawaiiNewsNow) - You're probably familiar with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, but did you know there's another similar agency across the Pacific in Alaska? The warning centers complement each other but they're also very different.

When an 8.0 earthquake struck south of Pago Pago in American Samoa, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center was on top of it, monitoring the tsunami and issuing alerts and warnings. Unfortunately their web site and phone lines were completely saturated, that's where the Alaska Warning Center can come in to help.

Both warning centers essentially do the same thing; they monitor earthquakes to determine whether a tsunami has been generated. But an important role they serve for each other, is as a back-up.

"That's part of our plan just in case they are well, compromised by an earthquake." Said William Knight, Deputy Director, West Coast and Alaska Warning Center

The warning center in Alaska is responsible for the west coast of Canada and the US, the east coast, the gulf coast, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. The center in Hawaii is responsible for most of the Pacific rim.

"But they also carry an international responsibility that we don't have."

The process of warning the public is the same. One of the seismometers they monitor suddenly starts to show some kind of motion and an alarm sounds. The team immediately sprung into action. The first message must be out within five minutes.

"Which means getting an approximate earthquake location a preliminary magnitude and making a quick decision to go with a tsunami warning bulletin."

If the earthquake generates a tsunami, they then create travel time maps, and issue warnings. Hawaii and Alaska deal with a lot of the same challenges...

"We both have a tremendous amount of tourism. Also, we have people come from all over the world that are not aware of our hazards." said Cindi Preller of the West Coast and Alaska Warning Center.

Not to mention the language barriers. In Alaska they have 80 indigenous languages as well, so pictures and translators are key to saving lives.

Isolation is another problem. If the airports are damaged, planes don't fly.

"It'll take a while for relief supplies to get to you and to get to us" said Claude Denver of the Alaska state Emergency Coordination Center.

"In the lower 48 they like to talk about a 72 hour emergency kit, we like to talk about a seven day kit."

Fortunately this time, an emergency kit wasn't needed. The earthquake that generated the alarm, didn't generate a tsunami. But each drill is a valuable lesson for the scientists always on watch.

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