Marble Island, population five, is about as close as you can get to the epicenter of Saturday morning’s earthquake, and still be on land. The small island is just off the northwest coast of Prince of Wales Island, across from Edna Bay. Cindy Wyatt lives there with her husband and two children.
They were awake when the earthquake hit, because one of her children had gotten up for a midnight snack. He was headed back upstairs when, “We all kind of heard, it was almost like a roaring, but not exactly, it’s a very hard noise to describe. Then the house started shaking, wind chimes started going off.”
By the time they figured out what was happening and what they should do, the quake was over. It lasted about a minute, but, “Tsunami is the next thing to worry about. Right?”
They checked their VHF radio, heard the alert and decided to head up the hill. They had practiced this before, after an earthquake off British Columbia triggered a tsunami alert in late October.
“And so, we know the drill: Get your warm clothes on and we’ll get out there. It just turns out in this case, by the time we found out exactly where it was, it was too late, really, to have gotten away from a tsunami because we were so close,” she said.
There was a tsunami wave from the earthquake, which had struck at a depth of about three miles. However, the tsunami wasn’t large enough to be a threat. The Tsunami Warning Center reported a half-foot rise in the water level at Port Alexander, and just a few inches above normal at Sitka.
But, Wyatt said, they didn’t know that and stayed up on the hill for quite some time. She hopes, in the future, emergency alerts on the marine weather and Coast Guard channels will be updated more often and with more specific information.
“I know from talking to my sister and some other friends that getting on Facebook, they knew more about what was going on than I did. I mean, immediately, everyone I guess in Southeast just about felt the earthquake, and was aware that something was going on. But for us, out here with no cell phones and no easy Internet access, it’s only the VHF.”
Wyatt said they don’t know whether their island experienced any surge. She homeschools her children, and said they’ll do some research in hopes of building a system to measure any future tsunami surges.
The earthquake’s epicenter was about 70 miles west of Craig. Officials in that Prince of Wales Island community immediately activated their emergency response plan: evacuating residents of low-lying and/or waterfront property, and staging equipment in strategic locations. City Planner Brian Templin said the earthquake was felt strongly in Craig.
“A number of folks came into the EOC and talked about stuff falling off the walls and that sort of thing,” he said. “I don’t think there was any major structural damage to anything, but the quake was certainly large enough to not only wake people up but shake things up in their houses pretty good.”
Initial reports were of a 7.7 magnitude earthquake. That later was downgraded to 7.5.
After the temblor hit, officials immediately issued a tsunami warning for all coastal areas of Southeast Alaska. The warning extended south to the northern tip of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and northwest to Cape Suckling, 75 miles southeast of Cordova.
In Ketchikan, some people felt the earthquake while others slept through the whole thing. City of Ketchikan crews checked area dams for structural damage soon after the quake, and again later when there was more light.
Emergency responders were on the watch, too, in case a tsunami really did hit. South Tongass Fire Department firefighter Steven Rugg said they were aware of the earthquake right away.
“The quake last night, we felt it here at Station 4 pretty well,” he said. “The walls kinda started to rattle, the coffee cups on the wall were bouncing, the couches were moving around. We definitely felt it.”
He said their fire chief was patrolling, and keeping people updated.
“From about the time the quake happened, our chief, Steve Rydeen, was out in his command vehicle, patrolling our district, making sure everything was kosher,” Rugg said. “When the tsunami warning was in effect, about every 30 minutes he was updating our South Tongass Fire Department Facebook page.”
The quake occurred along the Queen Charlotte Fault, which runs up the side of Haida Gwaii, and along the outer coast of Southeast Alaska to Yakutat.
In an interview following the late October earthquake, U.S. Forest Service geologist Jim Baichtal told KRBD that that since 1898, which is as far back as records go, there have been 322 earthquakes along that fault, or about three per year. Of those, 34 had been greater than a magnitude 6.
Now there’s 35.