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‘We can’t control nature’: The people of Whittier respond to threat of landslide-triggered tsunami from Barry Arm

Mixed levels of concern come from people living in the coastal town
Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 3:12 PM AKDT|Updated: Jul. 24, 2021 at 9:00 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - This week, state agencies came together to hold an outreach event in Whittier. Its goal was to help spread the word about how to stay safe in the event of an earthquake or tsunami.

People in the coastal towns of Prince William Sound always live with the threat of a potential tsunami. That includes the community of Whittier.

For more than a year now, the people of Whittier have lived with the possibility of a destructive landslide-triggered tsunami coming from Barry Arm after scientists discovered an active, slow-moving landslide there.

“It is a risk. It’s the largest landslide that we’re aware of in Alaska, and that’s saying something,” said Dave Snider with the Tsunami Warning Center at the state outreach event.

New data suggests the potential tsunami might not be as big as originally predicted, but it could still have the power to damage the community.

“I don’t know that it’s changed anything,” Snider said. “There’s still a threat of an inundating tsunami, one that would be higher than our minimal warning criteria. So it’s still a serious threat. I think what changed is our understanding. As far as the Tsunami Warning Center is concerned, that’s still a warning level event here in Whittier and something we need to take very seriously.”

There isn’t data yet to suggest how far inland the wave of water could go into Whittier, but the state is working to figure that out.

With the initial threat and the updated information, some people are living life as normal in Whittier. Others are preparing for what’s possibly to come while not changing their routine, while still others are on edge.

“I believe anytime (talking) about (a) tsunami for (the) community on the water, they’re going to be on edge,” said Andre Achee, the Whittier director of public safety. “Tsunamis can devastate a community if there’s no warning or no preparation.”

Achee said he thinks people were initially concerned about getting a warning before the wave and how big it was predicted to be, but he thinks some people have relaxed now that they’ve heard the new data.

“We can’t control nature, so we’ll just have to live with whatever the results are,” said Terry Clark, a resident.

Clark’s lived in Whittier for a few years. He said he’s not concerned.

“I’ve been through earthquakes and a lot of different scenarios, disasters,” Clark said. “I always have a jump kit ready. I always have stuff ready, should I need to evacuate.”

“Most people understand that they can’t control it. And you just have to accept it,” he said.

Snider said the landslide comes with a risk, but at the same time, people have to get through their day.

“People need to go to the store and go to school and live their lives,” Snider said. “I think the balance in that is mitigating that risk with being prepared.”

He said if people see any signs of a tsunami, they should get to higher ground.

Whittier is a place where one needs to pay attention to what the ocean looks and sounds like, Snider said.

“People here on the water know what the water does and what’s normal,” he said. ‘And when you see things that are unusual and they don’t sound or smell or look right, pay attention to those sounds and signs and move to higher ground immediately.”

If the landslide comes down on its own and not as of a result of an earthquake, Snider said people in Whittier won’t feel shaking as a usual tsunami warning.

Snider said there are a lot of things that could cause the Barry Arm landslide to give way.

“One of the things that we’re concerned about would be a heavy precipitation event. This is one of the wettest parts of the planet,” Snider said. “Heavy precipitation is not uncommon in that part of Prince William Sound, or any part of Prince William Sound for that matter.”

The city and state have been working on updating and installing new technology for the last year.

Achee said Whittier has added a Nixle subscription and is working on getting a second tsunami warning siren.

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