Homerites were propelled out of their beds by the rattle of a 7.9 magnitude earthquake recorded by the Alaska Earthquake Center in Fairbanks just after 12:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, Jan. 23, but were luckily able to return to them hours later.
The shaker hit 181 miles southeast of Kodiak at a depth of 6.5 miles, and was felt across the Kenai Peninsula. The National Weather Service issued a tsunami warning for much of coastal Alaska, including Homer, Seward, Kodiak and Sitka.
About 40 residents and their pets congregated at Homer High School, which the city opened as a shelter, and about 20 more took refuge at South Peninsula Hospital while vehicles migrated in waves up both West Hill and East Hill Road in search of higher ground.
“It felt like a big truck was driving by,” said resident Anna Dale while she sat on the floor of the high school commons early Tuesday morning. “It rolled forever.”
City of Homer Public Works Director Carey Meyer said workers found one waterline broken after the quake. Meyer said it’s not certain if the quake broke the line, but called it highly coincidental. The broken line runs from the city’s water reservoir at Bridge Creek to the treatment plant. The city has a redundant system with a second line.
“We were able to shut down the small line we have and use the summer line,” Meyer said.
The tremblor, located in the Pacific plate, was what’s called a “strike-slip” quake. This means it moved more horizontally than vertically, said Natalia Ruppert, a seismologist with the Alaska Earthquake Center. The two sides of a fault slide past each other, rather than one being thrust underneath the other as in a subduction earthquake.
Ruppert called the tremblor unusual.
“We don’t see this type of event very often,” she said. “… It is an unusual event for its size and also for its location.”
Earthquakes off the coast of Kodiak Island are not uncommon, but they don’t usually occur so far offshore, she said. There were quakes similar in nature in 1987 and 1988, but they happened farther north, closer to Prince William Sound, she said.
The quake’s distance from populated areas was why people felt a long, rolling quake, said seismologist Kasey Aderhold, a 2006 Homer High School graudate, who now works in Washington, D.C., with the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, or IRIS, a group that helps coordinate earthquake research.
“As the seismic waves travel through the ground, energy is absorbed and the high frequency (jolting) energy diminishes more quickly than the low frequency (rolling),” she said.
Tuesday’s earthquake happened about 56 miles southeast of a trench at the beginning of a subduction zone in the Gulf of Alaska that’s the site of many of Alaska’s big quakes. The quake most likely happened along an east-west trending fracture zone north of the Aja Fracture Zone, Aderold said. Most of the 40,000 quakes detected annually by the Alaska Earthquake center happen in this active subduction zone, not offshore of the zone on a strike-slip fault, Aderhold said.
Comparable quakes in the area include magnitude 7.9 and magnitude 7.8 quakes in 1987, Aderhold said. The January 2016 Iniskin quake that caused more damage on the peninsula was a magnitude 7.1.
The earthquake was also quite shallow, Ruppert said.
“The fault moved horizontally,” she said. “There was very little vertical motion.”
Earthquakes that move vertically increase the chances for a tsunami to occur. Still, Homer agencies sprang into action to keep people and infrastructure safe from one.
“Our main responsibility in a situation like we had early this morning is coordinating safe evacuation of people in low-lying areas,” said Police Chief Mark Robl.
The Homer Police Department’s policy is to begin evacuating areas of town near the water as soon as an official agency, like the National Weather Service, issues a tsunami warning, Robl said. For example, had Homer started with only an advisory, local evacuation processes would not have begun right away.
The evacuation was conducted very safely, Robl said, and the department received no reports of motor vehicle accidents or other incidents in the process.
“I think people were doing a very good job of self evacuating before we got there,” he said.
Homer Police officers drove around the evacuation areas with sirens sounding and lights flashing to advise people to leave.
Jan Knutson was at her Lupine Court home below East End Road and settling in for the night when the quake hit. Her husband, artist Ed Hutchinson, had been finishing up some paintings for a show he’s doing next month.
“It felt like it was very, very, very long. The whole house shook,” she said. “Nothing fell off; drawers flew open.”
After gathering their “go bag” of medicine, food, water, sleeping bags and other emergency gear, the couple first went to the Baycrest Hill turnout, which turned out to be packed with vehicles. They then went to the high school.
Homer City Manager Katie Koester also praised the citizen response.
“I was really impressed mostly by the community — how cooperative and responsible they were,” she said. “People evacuated in an orderly fashion. There were no accidents and no trouble.”
Koester initiated the city’s emergency operations plan, and officials from Homer Fire and the Alaska State Troopers met at city hall. Public Works staff also received text messages to report to the facility on the Sterling Highway, near the Beluga Slough, and start moving heavy equipment up to the high school. By 2 a.m. a small fleet of backhoes and bulldozers had been parked there.
“Not only is it valuable equipment, but it would be critical equipment in a response,” Koester said.
Down at the Homer Harbor, a decidedly low-lying area, Deputy Harbor Master Matt Clarke said personnel were also evacuating people on the Homer Spit. Such an evacuation depends on how much time harbor staff have to react, he said. In the case of Tuesday’s event, Clarke said staff had enough time to make the decision to go back down to the Spit and alert people at Land’s End Resort as well as live-ins in the harbor.
“I was in communication with the harbor master in Kodiak, who was preceding us in wave time arrival by about an hour,” Clarke said.
This meant he was getting real-time information from Kodiak’s harbor as to the magnitude of waves and tidal variations. When he heard the variations in Kodiak were maxing out at 2-3 feet and then subsiding, Clarke said members of the Homer Harbor became “reasonably confident of a non-event here in Homer.”
Infrastructure safety is another major concern at the harbor. As soon as the tsunami warning for coastal Alaska was downgraded to an advisory at 3:12 a.m., Clarke said he and another members of the harbor returned to survey for any potential damage, starting with the roads.
Clarke said that when he completed his initial assessment by about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, he had found no damage. He said other harbor personnel were conducting a more thorough assessment during daylight hours Tuesday.
Also on the Homer Spit, when the tsunami warning came, watch crews on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutters Hickory and Naushon prepared the vessels for heavy seas, doubling and tightening lines and dropping anchors. Because it takes the ships two hours or more to be able to leave the docks, they did not have enough time to leave port and weather a possible tsunami in Kachemak Bay.
“In this situation there really wasn’t a lot of time,” said Lt. Lauren Milici, commanding officer of Naushon. “The earthquake was essentially right under us.”
Cmdr. Andrew Passic, commanding officer of Hickory, also had his crew prepare the ship for a tsunami. Passic said he got an earthquake alert and then the tsunami warning through his cell phone. He paid special attention when he saw a data buoy in the Gulf of Alaska moved 32 feet.
“That was when I realized this could be real,” Passic said.
Aderhold said that it’s possible that buoy didn’t record a tsunami and probably picked up energy from the earthquake wave itself. Such information should not necessarily be interpreted as a signal for a tsunami wave, she said.
Milici and Passic both issued evacuation orders for watch crew on Naushon and Hickory. Because she lived in an evacuation area, Milici also had to leave her home near Beluga Lake. Coast Guard crew met at Coast Guard Housing in downtown Homer, their staging area in the event of a disaster. Evacuees found shelter in an office there.
“This was a real good exercise for us, for our plans,” Passic said. “I don’t think we would change much, but we had to dust them off.”
Once the National Weather Service changed the tsunami warning to an advisory, Passic sent people back to Hickory at about 4 a.m. Both ship commanders said Naushon and Hickory had no damage. Passic said the less than 1-foot tsunami hit on a 10-foot tide.
“We’re used to extreme water fluctuations,” he said. “Regularly we get a 6-foot roller coming in from the head of the bay.”
At South Peninsula Hospital, under its emergency operations plan, the hospital activated level 1 of its Hospital Incident Command System, or HICS, the lowest level, said hospital spokesperson Derotha Ferraro. That put the hospital on alert that there might be a situation or event which might have a potential impact. A tsunami is used as an example of such an event in the emergency plan.
Under HICS 1, the hospital put staff at the hospital on notice that there might be a situation developing. It also identifies an incident commander. Last night, interim Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer Holly Torres assumed that role. Torres lives in the evacuation zone.
“When she evacuated, she said, ‘I’ll just come up to the hospital,’” Ferraro said.
As it turned out, other evacuees also came to the hospital — the only unusual activity there last night. About 20 people came into the lobby for shelter, including six contract workers staying in the evacuation zone who have been updating the hospital’s electronic records system. Ferraro said the hospital has the resources and infrastructure for patients and Long Term Care residents, but not for other people.
Koester said the hospital is not a designated evacuation facility. The main evacuation facilities are Homer High School, West Homer Elementary School, Paul Banks Elementary School, Homer Middle School and Faith Lutheran Church. Ferraro said once she heard Homer High was open, staff informed visitors that they could go there. She also called KBBI for announcers there to spread the word.
In the name of spreading the word, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management sprang to action to do its part. While the push notifications that went to resident’s phones minutes after the quake are controlled by the state and triggered during a tsunami warning, Program Manager Dan Nelson said the borough has its own emergency messaging sytem that was used Tuesday.
Residents need to opt in to the borough-based RapidNotify, instructions for which can be found on the emergency mangement office’s website. That system sends out calls with pre-recorded messages about an incident to all the numbers that are registered.
Some Homer residents noticed that the borough alert calls did not come in until around 3 a.m., close to when the event was drawing to a close and many had already evacuated. Nelson said the office recognizes residents probably expected a more expedient response, and that there will be an investigation into how the messages were sent to see if anything can be improved upon.
He said there could be a number of factors causing some people to not get the automated calls right away. For one thing, Nelson said it can take some time since emergency messages have to be written, formatted and recorded for each individual incident before being sent out.
“We do not have templates or pre-defined messages,” he said. “… So when we have something going on, we have to write it.”
In this case, slightly different messages were created for Homer and Seward, and were checked with officials in each city, Nelson said.
Another factor that could have affected the automated calls is the fact that large numbers of people in the same area were on their cell phones at the same time, Nelson said.
KBBI Public Radio, AM 890, also sent out alerts throughout the night.
The tsunami warning sirens that went off in Homer and Seward, however, worked well with no complaints, Nelson said. The initial siren is triggered by the state, but the borough can opt to re-sound the sirens, which Nelson said was done in Seward.
Nelson said the reports he got about the sirens was that they were clear and that people understood them.
“There’s may be a silver lining in all of this in that we had a real event that required us to respond and stand up our emergency response center and the incident command system, and allowed us to actually react to this event as best we could,” Clarke said.
“The shaking helped make everybody pay attention,” Koester said of the situation.
Kasey Aderhold said people shouldn’t be complacent about quakes.
“The 2018 (quake) was quite far away and the 2016 was quite deep,” she said. “A magnitude 7+ nearer to a populated area could be a whole different story.”
Koester said there was a bit of irony in the earthquake happening during retiring HVFD Chief Bob Painter’s last week on the job. At Monday night’s Homer City Council meeting, the council honored Painter for his service.
“We joked, ‘Really, Chief? You’re leaving Friday?’” she said. “It’s a little uncanny. No retirement party. How about an earthquake and a tsunami warning?”