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Tsunami's impact minor in Sitka

SITKA, ALASKA
Shemya recorded the highest tidal amplitude in Alaska at 5.2 feet. Farther south, some cities experienced even higher water: Port Orford, Oregon, recorded 6.1 feet, and Crescent City, California, which experienced major flooding following the 1964 Alaskan quake, recorded a tidal amplitude of 8.2 feet.

A tsunami of “three feet or less” was predicted to arrive in Sitka this morning at 4:25 a.m.

Bryan Bach was aboard his 24-foot sailboat in Sitka’s Eliason Harbor at the time. He said the initial arrival of the tsunami was anticlimactic.

“Three foot swell or less doesn’t seem like anything that would even be measureable,” Bach said. “But right at 4:30 a.m. I did feel a little ripple come right through the harbor. Just enough to kind of move the boat around a little bit.”

Bach says there was no sense of urgency to leave the harbors. Things were pretty quiet, as usual. He says many people may have thought that first movement of water “was just a big boat going by.”

Things became more interesting in Sitka later in the morning. Shortly after 7 AM, there was a pronounced tide race under the O’Connell Bridge. The Sitka Fire Department notified KCAW that they had measured about a three-foot fluctuation in the water level in the harbor.

Steve Warren keeps his boat tied near the entrance of Sealing Cove Harbor. He says the tide was flipping every twenty minutes or so, rising and falling about two feet. He was watching debris in the water shortly after 11 AM.

“Things were flying by instead of drifting by like they usually do in big tides there,” Warren said. “And as I watched I called my wife over and said, 'Take a look at this.' It reversed itself as we watched it, and all the things that had come flying in went shooting back out the entrance in a matter of a minute or so.”

The official size of the tsunami in Sitka was 2.8 feet. Warren says he spoke with a friend who routinely delivers supplies to Biorka Island. The friend told him that the small harbor where he docked completely dried out in the few minutes he spent deciding to enter it. He later moored safely outside the harbor.

Many Sitkans were advised of the event by the Sitka police department’s new Code Red “call burst” system. Police chief Sheldon Schmitt says the system proved to be functional at a high level, with a ninety-percent completion rate. But the calls were not particularly timely. KCAW, located on the downtown waterfront, received a Code Red call at about 4:10 a.m., some 15 minutes before the expected arrival of the tsunami. Others report receiving the call as late as 4:20 a.m..

Schmitt says the time between the decision to issue and advisory over Code Red and the time the calls went out was late and will be “fixed” next time.

He stresses that this morning’s message was advisory, and based on the efforts of emergency officials to assess the situation as it developed overnight.

Fire Chief Dave Miller was parked much of the night in the lot just behind the Cable House. In an interview at about 5:30 this morning, he confirmed that officials were keeping a close eye on things.

“As far as we’re concerned at the Fire Department, we had 8 or 9 people there all night, watching everything that was happening on TV, reading every text, and everything that came across, trying to keep up with where everything was at. We kept in contact with the city administrator and the mayor and updated them a couple times when they got back into town about what was happening, and what we were planning to do,” Miller said. “When we went to do the call bursting to the community, we contacted both of them and told them what we were going to do, and they both agreed it was something that should be done.”

Along with the Code Red announcement, officials authorized a voluntary evacuation of low-lying areas and harbors in Sitka. Emergency shelters were open all night in at Keet Gooshi Heen elementary school and Sitka High. Annabel Lund, a spokeswoman for the Sitka Red Cross, said the shelter housed about forty-five people – mainly residents of the harbors and the Katlian Street neighborhood – and entertained them with snacks, hot drinks, and TV.
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