Life with the specter of tsunami
HOMER, Alaska – It is, in the world of volcanoes, one of the little guys: a bump on the sea, a molehill among mountains. Some days, Mount Augustine barely peeks above the mist that settles across Cook Inlet in South Central Alaska.Residents of this fishing town 70 miles to the east have been keeping an eye on the volcano, which woke up Jan. 11 and dusted the inlet with ash. The mountain has been erupting intermittently ever since. It is the focus of attention for the region and the talk of the town for Homer, the nearest community of any size.The most serious talk involves the threat of a tsunami. Outside of scientific circles, tsunamis were rarely discussed during previous eruptions of Augustine, the last in 1986. This time around, it seems, everyone is talking about killer waves.”I don’t remember this happening before. It’s on peoples’ minds: `Tsunami!’ ” says Lee Post, 50, who has lived through previous Augustine eruptions.Anxieties began last month at two community meetings where state and federal emergency managers laid out the scenario of an Augustine-caused tsunami. The probability was low, they said, but damage to Homer – if it happened – could be catastrophic.The warnings prompted questions, and generated discussions in cafes and classrooms and on call-in radio programs. Soon after, a pickup truck with a handwritten sign on a window – “The Big Wave is Near” – was seen chugging through town. Officials ordered new disaster sirens, and the fire department put together a pamphlet mapping out evacuation routes to be distributed to townspeople and visitors.Concerns hit a peak Monday when a drill by the National Weather Service accidentally triggered an automated tsunami warning. The news media issued bulletins, and locals flooded emergency centers with calls. It took several frantic hours for officials to calm the region’s nerves.Today, much of Homer (pop. 4,000) is trying to determine how much of the tsunami threat is real and how much a figment of a twitchy, hyper-vigilant bureaucracy.The issue has raised a peripheral set of questions: Do repeated warnings stir up unnecessary fear? When does precaution cross the line into paranoia? Is hysteria among a few an unavoidable consequence of informing the many?Post, co-owner of the Homer Bookstore for 27 years, recalls a woman who rushed in last month, grabbing books and “hurrying to warn some friends that a tsunami was coming.” Post asked where her friends lived.The woman told him East End Road.”East End Road is at 1,200 feet (above sea level),” he says now with sarcasm. “Yes, if there’s a wave that big coming to Homer, we’re all in trouble.”Many in town believe the tsunami warnings to be overwrought but acknowledge the mood of the times.They concede that hyper-alertness to disaster is a reality of the post-Sept. 11, post-Asian tsunami, post-Hurricane Katrina world. Thanks to the Internet and 24-hour cable news, mass destruction by powerful forces has become more vivid, more real, than ever to millions of people, even those in remote areas of the frozen north.Jan O’Meara, a local teacher and writer who has self-published a book on Mt. Augustine, says small volcanoes have been among the most deadly in history. Krakatoa, an island volcano in Indonesia, rose only 2,640 feet above the water. Its 1883 eruption created a tsunami that killed 36,000 people.Says O’Meara: “There is the potential for Augustine to do something truly terrible.”The mountain is part of the “Ring of Fire” – a geologic arc that encircles the Pacific Ocean and includes three-quarters of the world’s volcanoes. Alaska is home to more than 40 active volcanoes. On Monday, Cleveland Volcano in the Aleutian Islands also began belching up ash clouds.Augustine is an island volcano, rising out of the water to form a near-perfect cone roughly 6 miles wide and 4,100 feet high. It is uninhabited. The only way to get there is by boat or float plane.Locals refer to the mountain as mostly shy and solitary (natives called it Chu Nula, which means “beaver’s sleep”).The volcano has had seven eruptive episodes in the past two centuries, most of them minor. Only one created a tsunami. In October 1883, an eruption caused Augustine’s north flank to collapse into Cook Inlet. Waves from 15 to 30 feet high crashed onto the shores of Nanwalek, a village 15 miles south of present-day Homer. No one was killed.Scientists say the current eruptive episode could last months. Mushroom clouds of ash have risen six miles high, disrupting flights as far as Anchorage 171 miles north and Kodiak 120 miles south. The Kenai Peninsula has been dusted with ash.Emergency managers have tried to walk a fine line.”We don’t want to scare people. On the other hand, we want people to know what to do” if a tsunami ever does happen, says William Knight, a scientist with the West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer. Knight was one of the presenters at the community meetings.The town’s most vulnerable area is the Homer Spit, a narrow tongue of land stretching 4 1/2 miles into Kachemak Bay, which opens into Cook Inlet. The spit is the region’s activity center. A marina sprawls alongside restaurants, campgrounds and fish-processing plants.On a busy day, with tourists, the spit can be jammed with as many as 5,000 people. The lowest point is only 10 feet above sea level. Even a small tsunami could, according to the City of Homer Disaster Plan, cause “significant damage and loss of life.”The scenario outlined by scientists involves a lateral explosion on Augustine, like the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington. Such an eruption would cause a flank collapse, sending a landslide into Cook Inlet – just like in 1883. The landslide could generate waves up to 30 feet high racing across the inlet, destroying much of Homer. A tsunami could reach town in as little as 45 minutes.Augustine is wired with at least 14 seismometers. To date, the largest tremor on the mountain measured 3.2 on the Richter scale. With a reading of 4.5 or higher, the warning center in Palmer, 270 miles away, would alert a web of agencies.In Homer, mega-sirens – one at the police station, the other in the harbor – would sound off, and firefighters and police officers would begin evacuating the town, starting with the spit.”We believe we can evacuate 98 percent of the spit in about 45 minutes,” says Homer Fire Department Chief Robert Painter, 48.That’s assuming people obey commands. Painter fears that newly arriving tourists may not understand the threat, and even locals may become complacent. As time passes, the most formidable challenge, he predicts, will be keeping the public alert so warnings will be taken seriously.The concern is shared by scientists.Geologist Bruce Turner has spent most of the past quarter-century manning tsunami warning centers, first in Hawaii and now in Alaska. He works in a state-of-the-art building, thanks to a spurt of new funding.The Asian tsunami, which killed 280,000 people in 11 countries, prompted Congress to pay attention to the threat, allocating $24 million last year to upgrade the nation’s tsunami warning system. A few years ago, Turner says, he was “working out of a Quonset hut.” Staffing at the Palmer center has doubled to 12 and new equipment is on the way.But technology won’t address the most crucial problem. “There is an issue,” he says gravely, “with human memory.”Over the past century, there have been 210 tsunamis in the Pacific Ocean, a large number of them originating in Alaska. Most tsunamis go unnoticed; only those that kill lots of people gain public attention. A 1946 earthquake in the Aleutian Islands sent waves to Hawaii that killed 160. The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 killed more than 120, most of them tsunami victims.