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Tsunami Experience Prepares Alaska Town for Next One

Date: 06-Jan-04
Country: USA
Author: Yereth Rosen

Half a world away from the Indian Ocean and the massive tsunami that claimed at least 145,000 lives nine days ago, McCrae and other Seward residents say they are much better prepared should another hit the town of 2,700 people 77 miles (123 km) south of Anchorage.

"We couldn't see it coming. But we could hear it coming. It was like a jet landing on your roof," said McCrae, who spent 13 hours braving water and pelting snow on the roof along with his wife, newly-born baby and other family members.

McCrae, who said he feels a kinship with victims of the massive southeast Asia tsunami, said the water forced the house from its foundations and smashed neighbouring buildings to bits.

If his house had not become tangled in some cottonwood trees, McCrae is convinced his family would have been added to the 132 people who died in the earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded in North America, and the tsunami that followed it.

Residents of Seward, one of the hardest-hit places in 1964, and other western coastal towns from California to Alaska and Hawaii, have taken steps to ensure that McCrae's experience is never repeated.

Eleven communities including Seward that have been recognised as "TsunamiReady"under a National Weather Service programme launched in 2001 that is similar to a broader one encouraging storm preparation.

Some of the TsunamiReady towns have established detailed evacuation plans with the aid of high-tech tools, such as computerised mapping to predict areas of inundation under different scenarios.

Other efforts have been decidedly low-tech, such as the posting of signs pointing out evacuation routes and the practice in Seward of stocking every hotel and camp ground with brochures informing tourists how to respond to earthquakes and tsunami warnings.

Among the most important criteria for tsunami readiness are a warning centre that operates 24 hours a day and several communication systems to alert residents to emergencies and evacuation orders, said Aimee Devaris, warning programme manager for the National Weather Service's Alaska region.

"You need to have redundant communications systems," Devaris said. "Usually, your phone lines are the first thing to go."

RASH OF APPLICATIONS EXPECTED

Along with the 11 TsunamiReady towns, several other communities are working with the National Weather Service and other agencies to beef up emergency preparedness, Devaris said.

The Asian tsunami will likely make the programme a higher priority in all coastal areas, with more towns seeking TsunamiReady recognition, she said.

In Seward, communication systems include a siren and an automatic programme to dial up every telephone in the area.

There is also an emphasis on public education, said Seward Fire Chief Dave Squires. The warning and evacuation signs around town, designed to be the same as others used along the US West Coast, help in that goal, he said.

"I'm hoping that we'll have a worldwide-type sign that, no matter where you go, it'll mean the same thing."

Tsunami readiness has accompanied preparations for other, more-frequent disasters, like floods and winter storms, Squires said.

The town, a popular destination for summer visitors, is wedged in a narrow strip between the Gulf of Alaska and towering glacier-capped mountains. The proximity of water and steep peaks brings a special set of challenges for emergency planners and a public readiness to flee immediately to higher ground when necessary, Squires said.

"We're not going to change our topography or anything," he said. "All that stuff that's in low-lying areas can be replaced, except the humans."

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