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Borough panel talks emergency response

Manager praises the community's reaction, assistance to those displaced by Gastineau fire

Posted: November 16, 2012 - 1:05am

The Juneau Local Emergency Planning Committee had quite a bit to talk about when it met Wednesday for its monthly meeting.

Since the LEPC’s previous meeting on Oct. 10, Juneau has weathered a mild scare from a tsunami-generating earthquake in British Columbia, as well as the downtown area’s largest fire in years.

After the Oct. 27 earthquake, which struck the Canadian archipelago of Haida Gwaii in the evening and could be felt in parts of Southeast Alaska (http://bit.ly/T3Ekk9), the Emergency Alert System was activated to warn Southeast Alaska residents of the tsunami danger.

While the tsunami warning was only for areas of the region south of Cape Decision, well to the south of Juneau, and no destructive wave ultimately materialized (http://bit.ly/SNhNEF), EAS messages were broadcast in Juneau as well.

The City and Borough of Juneau’s emergency programs manager, Tom Mattice, said emergency responders received a number of calls from Juneau residents that night asking whether they should evacuate.

“It’s important to recognize that all of Southeast Alaska, Juneau’s the hub,” said Mattice. If an EAS alert is issued for Craig, for example, it is also broadcast in Juneau, he said. “So if we’re going to put out an alert, you’re going to hear it in Juneau. That doesn’t mean Juneau’s in the affected area.”

The EAS “is designed to tell people when it’s dangerous, not when it’s safe,” Mattice added.

Each alert message specifies the area to which a watch or warning pertains, National Weather Service forecaster Joel Curtis noted.

“It’s important in the specific message to listen for the ‘where,’” said Curtis. He also said anyone in an affected area should follow instructions provided by local authorities.

According to Mattice, the only potential tsunami danger that Juneau would face is from a localized wave, such as the deadly Lituya Bay “megatsunami” triggered by a landslide in 1958 (http://bit.ly/WZaxeR). He said that could happen only if an earthquake were to cause sustained, violent shaking in Juneau.

“Unless you feel the ground shake violently for 20-plus seconds, you’re probably safe in Juneau,” said Mattice. “So we don’t need to overburden the 9-1-1 system, recognizing that we’re the hub for all of Southeast. It may come out as an EAS, but we’re probably not in the affected area.”

Michelle Brown, who works with Mattice as the CBJ’s emergency programs grants coordinator, said reference points like Cape Decision are not readily understood by some people who may not be familiar with Alaska’s geography.

“I think it might be helpful if kind of in the background, there was kind of an overlay of the area that was affected,” Brown suggested.

Curtis said graphical elements are indeed being considered for implementation in the EAS.

Mattice also urged people to be prepared for an emergency.

“If you really care about safety, it’s probably a good idea to have a battery-backup NOAA weather radio,” said Mattice, referring to emergency alert radio receivers capable of picking up the signal from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration broadcasts.

In the case of the Nov. 5 fire downtown, which displaced about 50 people who lived in the Gastineau Apartments and covered part of the city in a cloud of smoke (http://bit.ly/Q9nLnR), Mattice said the response by the city, emergency responders and the broader community was largely successful.

“I think everything went, all things considered, just about as well as they could have with that fire,” Mattice said. “So we’re lucky on several fronts, but we have great partnerships, and a lot of that gets built in this room.”

Bob Herman, an American Red Cross of Alaska volunteer who was active in responding to the situation last week (http://bit.ly/PES2Jz), agreed, calling the support refugees from the fire have received “tremendous.” He singled out Fred Meyer, Costco and Tesoro for particular thanks.

“Everybody said, ‘Well, what can we do?’ and responded,” said Herman. “There was a lot more response than we would imagine.”

The Gastineau Humane Society’s Chava Lee also praised the city’s flexibility in allowing pets and their owners to stay together in city-owned buildings while sheltering from the fire.

“The fact that animals are being able to be housed in a city facility with their owners who have been displaced, and that the city and the Red Cross and Humane Society … can work together, I think it’s a really unique situation, and it’s worked really well,” Lee said. “I think it’s just the ability of the city to be able to look outside of all the strict little rules that we follow and figure out what’s the best for everybody.”

Centennial Hall was used as a shelter for evacuees and others in need of medical assistance starting on the night of the fire (http://bit.ly/RDwgof).

Members of the committee also officially welcomed Petro Marine Services office manager Paul Nowlin, who was appointed last week to the committee seat set aside for individuals experienced with transporting hazardous material.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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