The Sky is Falling in Alaska

Los Angeles Times
February 10, 2006
By Alex Tizon

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, Mt. 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.

Concerns began last month at two community meetings where state and federal emergency managers laid out the scenario for 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.

Anxieties hit a peak Monday when a drill by the National Weather Service accidentally triggered an automated tsunami warning. The news media issued bulletins, and residents 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 other 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.”

Like Post, many in town say the tsunami warnings are overwrought, but they acknowledge the mood of the times. They concede that hyper-alertness to disaster is a reality in 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 and more real than ever to millions of people, including 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 sea level, but its 1883 eruption generated a tsunami that killed 36,000 people. Says O’Meara: “There is the potential for Augustine to do something truly terrible.”

*

One of Homer’s claims to fame is that a person could get in a car in New York City and drive all the way here, the westernmost point of the U.S. highway system. Pavement gives way to beach and water, and to an unobstructed view of the Kenai Mountains — so otherworldly white they appear blue in the morning and pink at sunset. The town is populated by fishermen and freethinkers, loggers and artists — many of them refugees from big cities. Another 5,000 to 6,000 people live beyond the town limits.

On the beach one morning, ice floes carrying raucous crowds of sea otters drifted past. One held more than 30 otters, happily slipping on and off the ice, floating west, in the direction of Mt. Augustine. 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 ash clouds.

Augustine is an island volcano that rises to form a near-perfect cone, roughly six miles wide and 4,134 feet high. It is uninhabited. It turns white in the winter and brown in the summer. The only way to get there is by boat or float plane. Locals refer to the mountain as shy and solitary. Natives called it Chu Nula, or “beaver’s sleep.”

The volcano has had seven eruptive episodes in the last 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 away as Anchorage, 171 miles north, and Kodiak, 120 miles south. The Kenai Peninsula has been dusted with ash. Emergency managers 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 and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer. Knight was one of the experts at the community meetings. Some locals understand the dilemma.

“Anyone in charge of disasters now has to pay attention if they want to last more than a month at their job,” says Bill Smith, who sympathizes with officials even though he personally resists the tsunami hype.

Dean Thoemke, 49, moved here from the Seattle area last year. He is the assistant chief of the Homer Fire Department and in the event of a disaster, he and Chief Robert Painter, 48, would be in charge of protecting residents.

“See that tree line?” Thoemke asks, standing by a window on the second floor of the fire station. He is pointing at a large swath of land above the beach. “A tsunami would take out everything to that line. ” “If you come over here,” he says, almost pressing his face against the glass, “you can see the end of the spit. That’s where most of the concern is.”

The Homer Spit is a narrow tongue of land stretching 4½ miles into Kachemak Bay, which opens into Cook Inlet. The spit is the region’s center of activity. 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 the town in as little as 45 minutes.

Augustine is wired with at least 14 seismometers. To date, the largest tremor on the mountain measured magnitude 3.2. 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% of the spit in about 45 minutes,” says Painter, the fire chief.

That’s assuming people obey commands. Painter fears that tourists may not understand the threat, and even locals may be 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 South Asian tsunami, which killed more than 200,000 people, 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 last 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.

Back at the Homer Bookstore, Post goes along unruffled. He refused to close shop when many other businesses shut down because of ash fall advisories. The closures, which were mostly precautionary, lasted one day — Friday, Jan. 13 — and Post is quick to point out that half the town didn’t flinch. In the back of the store, a couple of customers giggle about the truck with the “The Big Wave is Near” sign.

“Maybe [the wave] got lost,” one says.

Post says part of him “wants something big and grand and life-memorable to happen. Another part wants to stop worrying about it.” Others in town, like Smith and Thoemke and Painter expressed weariness, worn down by the talk of killer waves and other end-of-the-world disasters. A common sentiment seems akin to nostalgia, as if coveting the good old days when — as Augustine awakened occasionally — the only thing to worry about was a little pale-gray dust on the windshield.