For the most part, Unalaska was shielded from the devastation of the 1964 earthquake. But there’s no telling if it will be next time. That’s why Unalaska and dozens of other communities around the state kicked off a series of emergency drills today.
It’s been 50 years since the Good Friday earthquake rocked Alaska. It rattled some nerves in Unalaska, but not much else. The epicenter was hundreds of miles away.
Unalaska police chief Jamie Sunderland says the next big earthquake could be a lot closer.
“When you’re anywhere near the coast, of course, that can involve tsunamis,” Sunderland says. “And most of the deaths that occurred in ‘64 were actually due to tsunamis.”
That’s why Unalaska will be holding an imaginary earthquake and tsunami this week. It’s part of the statewide Alaska Shield exercise. The Alaska Department of Homeland Security designs a fake natural disaster every two years so law enforcement and local governments can practice their response.
Last time, it was a harsh winter storm and power outage. This year’s exercise is meant to commemorate the 1964 earthquake. Sunderland says Unalaska will kick things off Thursday morning with a tsunami drill.
“It’s going to involve us setting off the tsunami sirens,” Sunderland says. “We’re going to focus on evacuating the school during a school day.”
It’s a big operation: Four-hundred kids and teachers will be leaving the city schools and walking up to high ground. About 50 feet above sea level or a mile away from shore is considered safe.
The schoolkids aren’t the only ones who will be practicing. Some municipal employees are planning to head for the hills, and Sunderland says other residents should join in — even if the weather doesn’t hold out.
“You know, you might be miserable because you’re out in the elements but you’ve got to get up above the waves so that you’re not dead,” Sunderland says. “And of course, being a little wet and miserable is better than that.”
The next big exercise starts Friday morning, when an imaginary earthquake will hit. City officials will create an emergency command center. They’ll also open up an emergency shelter for affected residents in the gym of the Parks, Culture, and Recreation center.
Recreation manager Ben Bolock says that a few locals just finished taking a Red Cross class on emergency management at the PCR. They’re the ones who will be running the shelter — and Bolock says they’ll be put to the test.
“We have families set up to come in at noon time until about 3 and go through some scenarios — go through a mass feeding,” Bolock says. “We also have some animals scheduled to come in. We are talking to the school district about having a class come over.”
Bolock encourages all Unalaskans to visit the shelter at the PCR this Friday to sign in. There’s no need to stay overnight: That role will be filled by a handful of local teenagers. They’re going to camp out under the supervision of the shelter volunteers. On Saturday morning, the exercise will wrap up with one last mass feeding — a free breakfast, to reward the teens for their service.
For more information about the Alaska Shield exercise, contact the Department of Public Safety at 581-1233 or the PCR at 581-1297.