Tsunami program that informs Alaskans of the danger is itself at risk

Areas under tsunami warning
Areas that were under a tsunami warning after a 2018 earthquake (Tsunami.gov)

A federal grant program that aims to keep Alaskans safe from tsunamis is slated for elimination. 

The director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Bryan Fisher, says the word came down March 27, an inauspicious date in Alaska history.

“We had all the West Coast, Pacific Northwest earthquake and tsunami folks in Anchorage hosting a meeting about this grant and our earthquake program on the anniversary of the ’64 earthquake,” Fisher said. “And that’s the day that we heard this news, which is even more upsetting.”

The Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program has provided Alaska with up to $700,000 a year. Fisher said that money is used for tsunami inundation mapping, sirens, research and, crucially, public education.

“Earthquake and tsunami day could be any day of the year. We lost over 130 people in the 1964 earthquake — 122 of those fatalities were caused by tsunamis,” he said. “Losing this program, really, at the end of the day could mean deaths in Alaska.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to eliminate the tsunami grant program and apply the money to other priorities. Fisher said these include modernizing the technology the tsunami warning system relies on. That’s a worthy goal, he said, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of projects in coastal communities.

“We can have all the technology in the world to predict wave height, tsunami arrival time, but if we don’t have this program that helps us communicate that danger at the ground level in our state and along our coast, all the technology in the world isn’t going to help anybody,” he said.

The Biden administration’s 2025 budget proposes to eliminate the program. But Congress holds the pursestrings, and Alaska has a member on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s communication director, Joe Plesha, said Murkowski will do everything she can to ensure Alaska can address the variety of hazards it faces, including tsunamis. 

Meanwhile, tsunami experts advise not to ignore nature’s alarm: If you’re in a coastal area and experience an earthquake strong enough that it makes standing difficult, head to high ground.

Even parts of Anchorage could be at risk if a tsunami coincides with high tide, according to new research that was funded by the federal Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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