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Borough Emergency Management making strategic changes after 7.9 quake

Last month’s 7.9 magnitude earthquake off Kodiak Island meant different things to different people on the Kenai Peninsula, and it all depended on where they lived. In areas closer to the open ocean of the Gulf of Alaska, it meant evacuation to high ground, while in the Central Peninsula, it was a midnight diversion, something to post about on Facebook for a few days.

For the people of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Office of Emergency Management, it was the time to swing into high gear to warn residents in vulnerable areas of possible tsunami danger.

“OEM responds to support the cities and municipalities  that are mounting an initial incident response. So we knew when that warning was issued, we had definitely evacuations and other actions that were required in low-lying areas to get people out of that inundation zone," said Dan Nelson, the OEM Program Manager. "The inundation area on the Kenai Peninsula that was at risk was Seward, Low Point, Homer, Seldovia, Port Graham and Nanwalek.”

The emergency wireless message system, said Nelson, worked 98 percent, though he acknowledged it caused confusion in the Central Peninsula, where residents that were not in danger also got messages to evacuate. Likewise, the automated phone calling system’s limitations, where calls were dropped or had no sound, has prompted a search for a replacement.

"So as one of the primary after-action items for this even the borough is researching looking into vendors who can actually support that," Nelson said. "What we want to do is always get that information out to the public, our residents, to our visitors, as quickly as we can. Especially with something as time sensitive life-safety issue such as a tsunami warning.”

Another issue with the emergency text messages and compliance with current standards in general, is GCI, the largest mobile phone company in the state. Its customers were unaware of the tsunami alert.

Mayor Charlie Pierce told the assembly that he would likely have a follow up report in a month.

“As Dan mentioned, GCI has several months to become compliant so we’ll work with those agencies and bring back better information soon. I wanted you to have an initial… I know there were a lot of questions coming into the office in regards to this issue," Pierce said. "I appreciate the work that’s been done. The response that evening was, “it worked.” The borough employees that responded worked very well. The other agencies that provided support, worked.”

In the end, the small tsunami generated by the quake went largely, and thankfully, unnoticed at just a few inches.

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