Local officials said coastal Whatcom County residents were never in any danger despite tsunami alerts that were issued for much of the west coast of North America early Tuesday in the wake of a powerful Alaskan earthquake.
“No, we were not under any real risk, but once again there were lots of inconsistencies between the National Weather Service and Environment Canada,” said John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management.
A tsunami warning and a tsunami watch were issued from the western tip of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to San Diego in California in the wake of a 7.9 magnitude earthquake that struck at 1:32 a.m. PDT about 170 miles southeast of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska.
An earthquake of that intensity is capable of tremendous damage, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and is considered strong enough to produce damaging coastal waves.
A tsunami warning ended at the U.S.-Canada border and a tsunami watch included the San Juan Islands just west of Bellingham, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map. It was canceled several hours later.
“Whatcom County coastal waters are not currently considered to be at risk,” Gargett said in an email at 3:42 a.m. Tuesday. “Environment Canada has issued an advisory only for the inland waters: Zone E – the Strait of Georgia including the Gulf Islands, Greater Vancouver and Johnstone Strait is being advised for information purposes only.”
Local tsunami warning sirens weren’t activated, Gargett said, adding that a local alert would only be sounded if officials were certain an event was imminent, and then only one or two hours prior to the expected arrival time.
“The sirens do not sound for a watch and we technically were not under a watch or warning. Sucia, Matia, Patos and the San Juans were, but not us,” he said.
Nevertheless, and possibly adding to the confusion, the National Weather Service posted a “special weather statement” for a tsunami watch at 3:02 a.m. Tuesday, which included Western Whatcom County.
Gargett said state and county officials were monitoring the situation but didn’t see any need for action.
“The big lesson of today was how do people get notified,” Gargett said. “Obviously, when a story’s breaking like this, you’ve got to get the word out.”
He said the first local alerts were sent within 20 minutes by text message to fire chiefs, ranking law enforcement officials, and public works officials. In context, Gargett said it would take three or more hours for a tsunami generated by a quake like Tuesday’s to reach Washington state.
“It’s not going to happen immediately,” Gargett said. “That’s because of time and distance. The first waves were not even expected to reach Neah Bay until 5 a.m.”
By then, officials knew that the possibility of a tsunami had evaporated.
Even if waves had arrived, Gargett said, Whatcom County residents would experience more of a tidal surge than a massive wave breaking along the shore.
“You’re never going to see that big wave, that Hollywood wave,” Gargett said. “It’s more akin to getting into the bathtub. But it’d probably be faster and cover a lot more than you would think.”