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Unalaska Fish Processors Contend With Evacuating Hundreds Of Plant Employees During Tsunami Warning

Hope McKenney/KUCB



A 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit south of Chignik last week, prompting tsunami warnings in communities across coastal Alaska. 

As community members across the Eastern Aleutians and Alaska Peninsula got alerts to get to higher ground, fish processors in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor —the nation's top fishing port in terms of volume— had hundreds of plant employees to evacuate. 

And for some, the evacuation went smoothly. But for others, even receiving the tsunami warning was problematic. 

During a tsunami siren test earlier this summer, half of Unalaska's antiquated sirens failed to sound

The city — which purchased the equipment in 1996 — said only three out of the seven sirens distributed across the two islands, which make up the community of Unalaska, are working.  

For processing plants like UniSea — one of the largest seafood processors in the world  — which is located near one of the three working tsunami sirens, Tuesday night's evacuation went down without a hitch. 

"I  think we did pretty good over here," said Ron Kjorsvik, director of Alaska operations at the large Japanese-owned company. "I think the siren helped because I think people take it a bit more seriously when they hear it. If you don't have that siren, people don't know if it's real or if it's just a drill. So I think the siren most definitely helped us out down here, for sure." 

Around 700 employees were evacuated during the warning, Kjorsvik said. They went to higher ground on a hill right behind the processing plant, after company officials received a tsunami warning notification first from the state, and then local authorities. 

Kjorsvik was woken up by alerts on his cell phone and a plant security guard knocking on his door. They immediately went to notify the 300 people on shift at the processing plant to get to higher ground. And as the tsunami siren next to the facility sporadically went off, officials proceeded to activate fire alarms and bang on doors, notifying the remaining 400 people off-shift in company housing or wandering around the island. The employees walked directly up the hill and waited until the warning was called off in the early morning hours.

"We have a drill every season to show our people where they go, so it's a fairly smooth process once you get everybody up," Kjorsvik said. "Of course, in the middle of night, there's challenges with waking people up and getting people to believe it's an actual event and not just a drill. But all in all, it went really well, for us anyhow."

But for other processors in Unalaska not located near a functioning tsunami siren or a hill to evacuate to, the notification and evacuation process didn't go quite as smoothly. 

"We received some positive feedback, others have communicated some concerns," said City Manager Erin Reinders. "We're working through the feedback that we received and trying to close the loop to make sure that we improve over time."

Reinders wouldn't comment on which processing plants in Unalaska complained about the city's notification process during the evacuation. Some processing plants claimed that the city's unreliable message alerts and faulty tsunami sirens made quickly evacuating hundreds of employees from sea level to higher ground extremely difficult. 

While four out of seven sirens aren't currently operational, Reinders said the city made sure to institute a "multi-pronged approach" to get word out to the community and processors. That approach included Nixle emergency alerts, tsunami sirens, and fire and police personnel driving through neighborhoods with sirens blaring and lights flashing.

"Obviously, it's a more effective notification system if all the tsunami sirens are working 100 percent. But as always, it's a layered approach," she said.

As Unalaskans and processors made their way to higher ground to wait out the warning, Kjorsvik said public health recommendations like mask-wearing and social distancing were tossed out the window. 

"I would guess about 85 to 90 percent of the people were still wearing their masks," he said. "There were a few of them that either forgot their mask in their room, and that's just kind of the price you pay I guess at this point in time in life."

Given the circumstances, Reinders said the immediate threat of the tsunami took precedence over the risk of contracting the coronavirus. 

"As a community or as families or as companies, we are all having to rethink how we work," she said. "And now, you know, we also need to rethink how we respond in cases of emergency when we are also within the confines of a pandemic."

Early Wednesday morning, NOAA's National Tsunami Warning Center said the tsunami was no longer a threat, and warnings were called off in communities across coastal Alaska. Only Sand Point — the first community predicted to be impacted —recorded a wave less than a foot tall

In the end, even though it was a false alarm, Reinders said the city is conducting further tests to evaluate what's wrong with the island's tsunami sirens so it can get all seven back up and running. 

"I'm thankful that in the end it wasn't an overly eventful night," she said. "Other than waking up and evacuating, I'm glad that nobody was injured, and there was no major tsunami. But it certainly does serve as a reminder that we are on an island in the Bering Sea and the Ring of Fire, and earthquakes occur, and tsunami threat is there, and we need to remember that."


Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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