A tsunami watch caused some confusion and anxiety, but the experience will help improve future warnings and response plans, officials say.

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A powerful earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska triggered anxious hours for residents along Washington’s Pacific Coast early Tuesday and gave the state’s tsunami warning systems a workout.

A tsunami watch issued shortly after 1:30 a.m. prompted some people to evacuate to high ground, while others received no alert at all. Some residents were confused by the distinction between a tsunami warning, advisory or watch. But most people seem to have heeded the “watch” message to stay tuned for more information and be prepared to act, local officials said.

“It caused some consternation, but all in all I thought things were pretty orderly,” said Scott McDougall, emergency management director for Pacific County, which includes the Long Beach Peninsula — a low-lying finger of land highly vulnerable to tsunamis. “We certainly identified some issues I would like to see us improve.”

The quake measured magnitude 7.9 — about the same as the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco. Centered about 175 miles southeast of the city of Kodiak, the Alaska quake prompted the U.S. Tsunami Warning System to issue its highest- level alert — a warning — for the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia.

Small waves were recorded in some places, but no large tsunami materialized. The tsunami watch for the West Coast states was canceled by about 4:15 a.m. In some places, though, that news didn’t get out for another hour or so.

This animation from the seismological consortium IRIS shows seismic waves from Tuesday’s magnitude 7.9 earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska spreading across the U.S. and being detected by networks of seismometers. (Courtesy of IRIS)

Pacific County, which alerts residents via an automatic call network, doesn’t have a similar system for the “all clear,” McDougal said.

“So we had a whole lot of people asking: ‘What happened? Is it over?’ ”

That’s a gap McDougal hopes to close in the future. Another is ensuring that the alerts get pushed out to more people.

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In many ways, a tsunami from a distant earthquake striking in the middle of the night represents a worst-case scenario for warning residents, said Chuck Wallace, deputy emergency management director for Grays Harbor County, home to low-lying cities like Westport, Hoquiam and the vulnerable Ocean Shores peninsula.

A tsunami from the Cascadia Subduction Zone would be more destructive, but the powerful quake would be felt widely and serve as an unambiguous signal to run to higher ground, Wallace said.

“Something like this Alaska quake, at 2 a.m. everybody is sleeping, lots of people are offline so they don’t get emails or texts,” Wallace said.

Former Pacific County emergency-management director Stephanie Fritts discovered that was the case with her own grown children. When she tried to reach them at their home on the Long Beach Peninsula, she couldn’t get through because they had turned their phones off. So Fritts, who was staying in a town about an hour away, decided to make the drive and deliver the alert in person.

Jackie Sheldon, who also lives on the Long Beach Peninsula, was awake and online when her phone and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather alert radio started ringing and buzzing shortly after 1:30 a.m.

 

Related video: Earthquake warning system

John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, explains how an early warning system could alert people before an earthquake hits. Read more. (Steve Ringman & Corinne Chin / The Seattle Times)    

Sheldon, who takes emergency preparedness so seriously that her friends call her the disaster-management queen, decided to evacuate.

“I’m not close to any high ground,” she said. All of her kids gathered at her home, and the whole family piled into vehicles and drove to a school in Ilwaco that sits on a hill.

“It was only a watch, but you never know if it’s going to get upgraded to an advisory or warning,” Sheldon said. “If that happened, I didn’t want to get mixed up in a traffic jam.”

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About 40 other families made the same decision and spent a few hours parked at the school until the watch was lifted.

Eye of the Storm Pacific County, a Facebook group that Sheldon helps administer, was peppered with comments Tuesday from other residents who said they got no warning call or text.

That’s because many people don’t realize they have to register with the county emergency-management department to receive the messages, Sheldon said.

In Grays Harbor County, the scare inspired a thousand people to sign up Tuesday morning for future alerts, Wallace said.

That’s encouraging, but he’s also pushing more residents to equip themselves with the single, most effective warning system: a NOAA all hazards weather alert radio.

The NOAA system pushes out warnings faster than the counties can and doesn’t require cell reception to get through. Also, the alert signal is impossible to ignore or sleep through.

More on earthquakes

“The noise is so loud you’ll be running to turn it off,” Wallace said.

Much of the impetus for the U.S. tsunami-warning system came from another powerful Alaskan earthquake: the 1964 Good Friday quake.

At magnitude 9.2, the quake was the second largest ever recorded. It occurred on a subduction zone, a tectonic boundary or fault where the seafloor is being forced under the North American continent.

In that fault rupture, tectonic plates jerked past each other vertically, triggering massive tsunamis that swamped the Port of Valdez, Seward, Kodiak and other communities. The waves wrecked havoc along the coast of British Columbia then headed toward the U.S. West Coast, where residents were unaware of the danger.

Waves 12 feet high struck coastal towns in Washington, sweeping away a bridge over the Copalis River. In Oregon, four children camping on the beach with their parents were swept to their deaths. A dozen people were killed in California and the harbor at Crescent City was devastated.

Tuesday’s quake didn’t occur on the subduction zone, but on a fault further south within the tectonic plate that makes up the seafloor, said Paul Bodin, of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. The rupture moved side to side instead of vertically, so little water was displaced.

For coastal communities in Washington, it was another wake-up call and reminder of the tsunami threat posed not only by distant quakes but also by the Cascadia Subduction Zone just offshore, Wallace said.

“Thank God for us it wasn’t a real event that impacted anyone here,” he said. “But something like this actually helps us get better and improve our response.”