Undersea quake sends Alaskans fleeing from feared tsunami

January 23, 2018 by Mark Thiessen And Becky Bohrer
Undersea quake sends Alaskans fleeing from feared tsunami
Abdulai Salam and his daughter Mina at about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, wait for the all-clear at Homer High School during a tsunami alert for Homer, Alaska. The city of Homer issued an evacuation order for low-lying areas shortly after an earthquake hit. (Michael Armstrong/Homer News via AP)

A powerful undersea earthquake sent Alaskans fumbling for suitcases and racing to evacuation centers in the middle of the night after a cellphone alert warned a tsunami could hit communities along the state's southern coast and parts of British Columbia.

The monster waves never materialized, but people who fled endured hours of tense waiting at shelters before they were cleared to return home.

"This was a win as far as I could tell," said Marjie Veeder, clerk for the city of Unalaska, which is home to the international fishing port of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. "We got advance warning and were so thankful for that."

The magnitude 7.9 quake in the Gulf of Alaska triggered the jarring alert that roused people shortly after midnight Tuesday. Fleeing motorists clogged some highways in their rush to higher ground. Many took refuge at schools or other shelters.

Even for Alaskans accustomed to tsunami threats and tsunami drills, the phone message was alarming. It read: "Emergency Alert. Tsunami danger on the coast. Go to high ground or move inland. Listen to local news."

There were no reports of damage, not even on Kodiak Island, the closest land to the epicenter. Only after the all-clear was sounded did a little levity emerge. In Kodiak, a customer posted on the Facebook page of King's Diner: "Hungry? Tsunami got you up early?"

Undersea quake sends Alaskans fleeing from feared tsunami
Brennan Caton, center, Misty Lawson and Courtney Caton, right, listen to the coast guard radio inside their home for updates on the tsunami warnings that shook Tofino, British Columbia, after the Alaskan earthquake on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. A tsunami warning issued for coastal British Columbia was canceled Tuesday morning after some people living along parts of the province's coast evacuated to higher ground when a powerful earthquake struck off Alaska. (Melissa Renwick/The Canadian Press via AP)

Eleanor King opened the diner at the usual time of 6 a.m. By the time customers started arriving, the excitement had passed and people just sat around quietly eating their meals, speaking little of the quake.

The temblor reminded King of a deadly 1964 quake that generated tsunamis that killed 129 people and wreaked widespread devastation—events that remain vivid in the memories of many Alaskans.

"It started out just like the big one," she said. "It was very slow and rolling, a good resemblance to the big one. That's what scared us."

Tuesday's quake was recorded at 12:32 a.m. in the Pacific Ocean about 170 miles southeast of Kodiak, home to one of the nation's largest Coast Guard bases.

Undersea quake sends Alaskans fleeing from feared tsunami
A van backs down the road as Tofino, British Columbia, residents and visitors flood out of the community center after the tsunami warning ends, on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. A tsunami warning issued for coastal British Columbia was canceled Tuesday morning after people living along parts of the province's coast evacuated to higher ground when a powerful earthquake struck off Alaska. (Melissa Renwick/The Canadian Press via AP)

It prompted the warning across thousands of miles of Alaska's southern coast, from Attu in the Aleutian Islands to Canada's border with Washington state. Kodiak is about 200 miles (321 kilometers) south of Anchorage, the state's largest city, which was not under a tsunami threat.

Elsewhere in the United States, Washington state, Oregon, California and Hawaii were under tsunami watches, which eventually were lifted. Officials in Japan say there was no tsunami threat there.

The state has an active tsunami-readiness program, and many communities have sirens and evacuation plans.

In British Columbia, sirens blared and officials banged on doors to wake people from their sleep as a tsunami warning was issued along a large swath of the Canadian province's coastline.

Undersea quake sends Alaskans fleeing from feared tsunami
Tofino residents and visitors leave the community center after the tsunami warning ends, on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in Tofino, British Columbia. A tsunami warning issued for coastal British Columbia was canceled Tuesday morning after people living along parts of the province's coast evacuated to higher ground when a powerful earthquake struck off Alaska. (Melissa Renwick/The Canadian Press via AP)

"I just heard the firetrucks going around, honking their horns and on the loud speaker saying there is a tsunami warning," said Gillian Der, a University of British Columbia geography student who is studying on Haida Gwaii, off the coast of British Columbia. "It was very apocalyptic."

Chris Alemany, who lives in the Vancouver Island community of Port Alberni, Canada, said he was sleeping soundly with earplugs when his 10-year-old son barged into his bedroom and woke him up.

Alemany had not heard the sirens, even though they are a block and a half from his home. When he took out his earplugs, the noise was "really, really loud," and it became clear quickly they needed to evacuate, he said.

The family decided to flee to Alemany's parents' home. They had to decide on the fly whether to take their dog and three cats. They didn't, in spite of their son's protestations.

Undersea quake sends Alaskans fleeing from feared tsunami
Jan Knutson, left, and her husband Ed Hutchinson, center, and a man at about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, wait for the all-clear at Homer High School during a tsunami alert for Homer, Alaska. The city of Homer issued an evacuation order for low-lying areas shortly after an earthquake hit. (Michael Armstrong/Homer News via AP)

"I've never seen so much traffic on our roads," he said. "At 3:30 in the morning, it was like there were 4,000 extra people in town or something because everybody was headed up the street."

The time between the siren sounding and the all-clear was tense, and his son and daughter were scared. "But in the main, I think people kind of knew what they needed to do and just waited for information," he said.

Back in Alaska, people reported on social media that the quake was felt hundreds of miles away, in Anchorage. Reports varied about how long the quake's shaking lasted, depending on location.

In the popular cruise-ship town of Seward, about 110 miles (177 kilometers) south of Anchorage, Fire Chief Eddie Athey said the quake felt like a gentle rattle that lasted for up to 90 seconds.

Undersea quake sends Alaskans fleeing from feared tsunami
Anna Dale and her dog Poppy at about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, wait for the all-clear at Homer High School during a tsunami alert for Homer, Alaska. The city of Homer issued an evacuation order for low-lying areas shortly after an earthquake hit. (Michael Armstrong/Homer News via AP)

"It went on long enough that you start thinking to yourself, 'Boy, I hope this stops soon because it's just getting worse,'" Athey said.

The Alaska Earthquake Information Center categorized the shaking as light.

The quake was a type that usually produces less vertical motion, which means less chance for waves to build for a tsunami, said Paul Earle, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. That was somewhat unusual, because quakes in the area usually are a type that cause more vertical motion and increase the chance for a tsunami, he said.

The quake was the planet's strongest since an 8.2 magnitude in Mexico in September.

This screenshot shows alerts for a tsunami watch early Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, after an earthquake struck off Alaska's Kodiak Island prompting a tsunami warning for a large swath of the state's coast. Officials at the National Tsunami Center canceled the warning after a few tense hours after waves failed to show up in coastal Alaska communities. (AP Photo)

Kodiak resident Ted Panamarioff survived the 1964 earthquake, which was magnitude 9.2. But his father died in the ensuing tsunami, he said. To him, Tuesday's quake felt far milder, although it did wake him up.

He was never worried about killer waves. His home, he said, is too far inland.

"If anything happened, if there was a tsunami, it'd have to be one hell of a big tsunami to get me where I'm at," he said. "And then there wouldn't be a city left."

Explore further: Magnitude-6.7 quake strikes remote area off Alaska coast

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