Officials Take Victories, Lessons From Tsunami Evacuation

Tuesday night’s Assembly meeting included a topic no one could have foreseen when the agenda was released Friday.

Fire Department officials briefed Assembly members on the Saturday morning evacuation that followed a 7.5 earthquake just before midnight Friday.

It’s been a while since residents of Sitka have been ordered to head for the hills.

“We haven’t had anything major since the late 1980s,” fire Chief Dave Miller told the Assembly. “When I first got here in 88, 89, somewhere in there, we did it three or four times in a row. In fact, we did it once as a test, sometime at noon or something, and a minute later we were setting them off for real because the state sent us a thing. It was really hard to get the public to figure that one out.”

The sirens wail less frequently now, and that’s by design, says Miller. Fire officials want to make sure people don’t get what he calls “cry-wolf syndrome,” that they take the sirens seriously every time they ring. So he’s been judicious about when to set them off. In the last couple years, there have been three large earthquakes in the Pacific, including Friday’s.

“For two of them, we didn’t set the sirens off,” he said, citing the 2011 Japanese earthquake and an October 2012 quake near Haida Gwaii, off the coast of British Columbia. “We waited, we followed those earthquakes all around the Aleutian chain, everywhere we could – checking with communities all the time to see what wave was there. Both times we waited until the end and decided we didn’t need to evacuate. This one, we felt different.”

And so, 15 minutes after the quake struck, the sirens blared, and the streets filled up with cars.

The sirens were preceded by activation of the city’s call-burst system. Residents can sign up by clicking the “Code Red” link on the police department’s website to get an automated phone call in the event of a community-wide emergency.

In an interview on Monday at the Fire Hall, Miller said officials knew they had time before a wave was expected to hit. So the delay in sounding the sirens was on purpose, to get critical responders rolling before the bulk of Sitka hit the streets.

“We started getting heavy equipment that was sitting in the city shops going, calling those guys, so they could get that stuff to higher ground,” he said. “We wanted police officers to be able to get out and give them a head start on the traffic that was coming, we wanted to get all of our vehicles up to high ground for emergency response stuff after, if there should be a wave.”

Tuesday, in front of the Assembly, Assistant fire Chief Al Stevens said the response had a little of everything.

“Did things go well? Yeah, absolutely they did,” Stevens said. “Did things go bad? Yeah, absolutely they did.”

Stevens was on-call the night of the earthquake, and when he felt the shaking, he got up, dressed, left his home near Thimbleberry, and headed for the fire hall.

“And as I was coming around the Armory, I noticed at Price Street there were a lot of cars starting to come out and head in,” he said. “People knew what they were doing; they knew it was something big.”

Stevens says it’s a good sign that people did not wait for the sirens. To him, it means efforts are paying off to educate the public that when you feel the ground shake, you should head to higher ground. On the other hand, all those motorists heading in one direction at the same time – toward the two schools designated as evacuation centers – caused problems.

“We had a traffic jam,” said Jim Dinley, Sitka’s municipal administrator. “There’s almost 4,000 vehicles registered, and they all tried to get to the same spot at the same time. We’ll look as to, with the police department, is there a better way to control the flow of traffic, and convince a lot of people: If you’re that close, start walking.”

Other things to correct for next time: The gate on the road leading up to the Benchlands was locked. Miller says it’ll be opened.

Fire officials emphasize it’s important to have a plan on where your household will evacuate, and to have supplies ready to go with you. But they also have some advice for the immediate aftermath of an earthquake:

“After the earthquake happens for those first 10 minutes, don’t call the police department, don’t call the fire department,” he said.

When people call who aren’t actually experiencing a direct emergency, “we spend that whole time answering the phone. We can’t move ahead,” Miller said. “We have to answer the phone, in case somebody’s having a heart attack or something. But we’re answering questions: ‘Was that really an earthquake?’ For the first four or five minutes, we’re assuming that it was. We felt the same thing you did.”

Assembly members praised the response effort, and Miller said he was happy with the way things went off on Saturday.

Miller acknowledged he could probably go on longer, and so could this story, with questions and answers about different aspects of Saturday’s response.

Sitka’s Local Emergency Planning Committee will probably talk about some of those questions when it meets Thursday at noon at the Fire Hall. The meeting is open to the public.

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