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Does Alaska's tsunami alert system work?

Tsunami hazard sign
Tsunami hazard sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ben Anderson | Mar 31, 2012

A tsunami warning test conducted in Alaska Wednesday morning revealed a few key flaws in the vital statewide system, and authorities are now working to correct them.

Coordinating a statewide alert involves a lot of moving parts: depending on the type of alert, numerous state agencies, broadcasters, and local officials must spring into action to get the word out about a potential disaster. For a seismically active state like Alaska, the tsunami warning system is vital for notifying Alaska's coastal communities.

The test didn’t go quite as planned in a couple of communities. Unalaska is experiencing a recurrent issue with its tsunami warning sirens that the city is working to fix, so the test wasn't fully carried out there. A more serious misunderstanding occurred in Cordova, where communication with local authorities may not have been adequate and there was brief confusion about the test's authenticity.

According to Cordova Police Chief Bob Griffiths, confusion arose because local authorities didn't have enough information prior to the test. He said the department was informed of a pending test in early February, but never had any follow-up beyond an update heard from a radio station in nearby Valdez.

So when the test rolled around at about 9:45 a.m. Wednesday, radio and television airwaves were taken over with the test message, just as they should have been. About 10 minutes later, Griffiths said, police got a call telling them to turn on their tsunami warning siren. The department tests its sirens frequently, with a tone that's different than what would be heard in event of an actual tsunami.

"The pre-recorded message for the test is a completely different tone than the actual siren for the tsunami alert," Griffiths said. "The alert is a loud, piercing noise" that was heard up to one and a half miles from the coast.

Cordovans who may not have seen or heard the television or radio....