Petersburg residents began seeking higher ground after an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.5 hit just before midnight Friday evening.
This major earthquake struck 58 miles west of Craig and 203 miles south of Juneau and immediately prompted a tsunami warning for almost the entire southeast region of Alaska.
“After realizing this was an earthquake, I immediately grabbed the phone and called dispatch, knowing they would be inundated with calls,” Petersburg EMS Director Sandy Dixson said. “I just wanted to make sure they knew I was on my way and asked if they had called the Chief.”
Dixson paged out the fire department volunteers and had them standby at the fire station.
“EMS assisted the hospital in evacuating its patients to Mountain View Manor,” Dixson said. “The CodeRED system worked but it didn’t contact everyone so that is something we will have to troubleshoot with the company to make sure it works properly next time.”
Dixson suggests that anyone who has already registered for the CodeRED system but were not contacted, double check your registration and make sure all of the information and numbers are correct.
Petersburg Police Chief Jim Agner called the dispatcher and was relieved that they answered the phone.
“One of my concerns was whether the building was still standing,” Agner stated. “When I realized all was well with the building, I contacted the Borough Manager and we received official notification of the tsunami warning.”
The chief and borough manager had issues with the CodeRED system due to the siren not working to notify residents of the warning.
“We were unable to get the siren to work until we were able to send a person to the school personally to test the system and that is when the siren sounded,” Agner stated. “We sent patrol vehicles through town with sirens and PAs and sent people to the ball fields.”
Agner explained that the ball field has always been the official place for evacuation due to the rules stating to be one mile inland or over 100 feet in elevation.
“Of course there were too many people for the ball field, so we also sent people to alternative sites such as Hammer and Wikan, the Post Office, Airport and landfill area,” Agner stated. “We had people in all of these areas to keep everyone informed of what was going on and to maintain calm.”
According to Agner, the town evacuated smoothly.
“I was very pleased that we didn’t have too many issues,” Agner stated. “There were some people that didn’t have transportation and we had to do something about that, but for the most part it went really well.”
An alternate dispatch site was set up at the fire hall as well.
“We were able to bring out the communications trailer, which was purchased with a grant, and set it up,” Dixson said. “Our communications room was treated as a dispatch site.”
According to Agner, this was ground zero for a tsunami.
“We switched all communications to the alternate site and the communications trailer and shut this facility down,” Agner stated. “We had the phone working out of the fire hall and the radios out of the trailer that was parked there and for the first time in the 50 years this building has been here there was no one here. We locked the door and walked away.”
“There is some personal responsibility that needs to be taken even if it isn’t a city wide evacuation,” Dixson stated. “There are things that everyone needs to think about that are needed regardless of what it is, an earthquake, tsunami or a personal emergency. What are some things you will need to take with you that you can grab on your way out the door?”
Both Agner and Dixson stressed the need to have a go-bag ready at all times. A list of things that could be needed in an emergency can be found at www.readyalaska.gov along with other pertinent information that could be helpful in any situation.
“A general rule of thumb with earthquakes is if you shake for more than a minute or have difficulty standing up, people should not be waiting for us to tell them to go to higher ground,” Dixson stated. “The chance of it happening may be slim but if it does happen it will be bad.”
According to Dixson, the worst part of this evacuation was that it happened in the middle of the night.
“Luckily the weather wasn’t too bad,” Dixson stated. “And what better time to learn and grow and next time it will go even better.”
Agner explained that he was proud of the community and its response in this matter.
“The community of Petersburg did an excellent job,” Agner stated. “This evacuation was orderly and people were polite and helped their neighbors, we couldn’t have asked for things to turn out better.”
Over 50 employees of the Petersburg Medical Center showed up for duty to move 18 patients from the hospital to Mountain View Manor.
“It was such a smooth transition,” PMC CEO Liz Woodyard said. “I am so very impressed with the staff here, everyone did a wonderful job.
Woodyard explained that Liz Bacom became the incident commander and was able to lead everyone to manage the task quickly and smoothly.
“This evacuation was done in a short amount of time,” Bacom stated. “It took about 20 minutes to get all of the patients out of the hospital and another 10 minutes to get them settled at the manor.”
Woodyard also stated that the CodeRED system worked well for the hospital staff.
“We will have to work the bugs out with the company for all of the other problems,” Bacom stated. “We want the public to know that we are ready here. There was no anxiety for the patients, the staff was calm, cool and collected and the move went very well.”
The police chief and EMS director would like the public to know all of the things that can be done to make evacuation even easier in the future.