Tsunami Warning Center Website Fails During Alert
Despite online issues, officials point to other communication modes -- and preparedness
PALMER - The Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer Alaska is usually calm. It's a spacious office with screen banks showing glowing maps and graphs. Occasionally, you'll hear a tweeting bird, the sound the doors make when someone enters or exits the building.
But on Saturday evening, it was different. A 7.7 magnitude earthquake off the coast of British Columbia ramped up activity. The workers at the tsunami center were working immediately, monitoring the tides to see if a tsunami warning south on the Pacific was necessary. When this happens, the quiet office stirs with activity; the doors chirp as more employees come on for duty. Phones ring and the automated earthquake announcements list the aftershocks over a speaker.
"We were on the phone with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] within three minutes," said geophysicist Guy Urban. This is usual protocol for a tsunami warning.
They determine the epicenter, the risk, and issue the appropriate warning or advisory. They have to communicate with the military. Their warnings are also broadcast on television and the radio.
One key mode of communication was not working, though--the Tsunami Warning Center's website. It displayed an error message. Urban said, "The load was so great that it crashed the caching system. They were down for about two hours."
Urban calls this a minor glitch -- one that he says was fixed in two hours and will not be a problem in the future. However, he brought up the outages in internet and cell phones on September 11, 2001, and the fact that systems like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) radios don't malfunction when a lot of people are using them.
Saturday, the site turned to a technology it only recently embraced -- Twitter. The Twitter page was just put up a few weeks ago succesfully tweeted out the tsunami warnings.
Urban says the warnings they issue are helpful if people can find out ten minutes in advance, but he says, if you're living near the coast, it's important to know what to do if you're at the epicenter of an earthquake. "If you're near the water when an earthquake hits, especially if its big enough to make it hard to stand up, you want to get at least one mile away and 100 feet up."
Urban said people living near the coast should be informed about what to do in case of emergency.