Japanese Quake holds big lesson for Kodiak — 100 feet isn’t high enough to escape possible worst-case tsunami


Tohoku Quake caused Japan’s ‘great tsunami’ in 2011 which killed 20,000.

Kodiak Island residents need three weeks of supplies on hand.


Chief Mullican speaks to the Kodiak Island Local Emergency Planning Committee. Kayla Desroches/KMXT

In March of 2011 a 9.0 earthquake hit Japan causing massive damage and killing as many as 20,000 people. Much of that damage was caused by the great tsunami that flooded towns, farmlands and wide regions of the area.

Many people refer to the 2011 earthquake in Japan as the Fukushima Quake. Possibly because it caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant to melt down, which lead the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Alaskans may remember that quake, which is correctly named Tohoku. Tsunami warnings were issued along Alaska’s coast. The video of the tsunami tearing through towns, going over breakwaters, and inundating vast swaths of farmland is hard to forget.

For those in Kodiak, the Tohoku quake brought an important lesson. The 100-foot tsunami evacuation zone isn’t high enough. Kodiak residents must plan to get well above 100 feet when a tsunami evacuation is ordered.

Elena Suleimani  is a tsunami expert who drew the first evacuation map for Kodiak. She says Tohoku was an off-shore quake. And from it scientists learned a lot about how such quakes can create huge tsunamis.


“It’s not that the magnitude was unexpected. The magnitude of this kind happened before. But, the way that the seafloor moved during the earthquake was quite unexpected in the Japanese event.”


And how does that relate to Kodiak?


 “And then scientists suggested that Alaska Aleutian Subduction Zone, close to Kodiak, has a very similar behavior and structure to the Japanese Subduction Zone.  So that type of earthquake can easily happen here in Kodiak. The fact that we haven’t had that earthquake before doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.

So this kind of earthquake can be here off-shore and can result in similar inundation zone.”


Suleimani  was in Kodiak last week with fellow scientist Dmitry Nicolksy, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. They are working with local planners and a map maker to update the Kodiak Evacuation Plan to reflect the latest science on how high a tsunami could reach.

Using computer modelling based on historical records, archeological records and new science about possible tsunamis around Kodiak Island, they will be able to predict how an incoming tsunami might flow and where the water would go. Then they will know how high on various streets and local landmarks a person would need to go to be safe.

Once that is known, they’ll calculate how long it takes a person to reach that point on foot. That bit of information can be life or death if a quake causes serious damage to Kodiak’s roads and infrastructure before the tsunami arrives.

Kodiak Fire Chief Jim Mullican is the Emergency Services Coordinator in the event of a widespread disaster.


“Worst case scenario, the road system is no longer drivable. So, you don’t want to just sprint through and think everything is OK in the dark. You know if you have flashlights, if you don’t you’re going to have to take your time getting out of the inundation zone.

Taking your time is a conceptual thing of what’s in front of me, what hazards do I have to get around? Did a car overturn? Is there a fire? Is there downed electrical cables? Remember we’re talking an earthquake here creating a lot of damage to our infrastructure.”


Speaking of damage to infrastructure. Mullican says Kodiak Island residents should have at least a two weeks’ supply of food, medicines and whatever they will need to survive until supplies can arrive on-island.


“We could lose our docks; we can lose the airport. So it comes down to what us as citizens ourselves can do to protect our families and prepare for this. And that will make the overall community response far better. Because we can help those who are truly in need. And then we have the community that can help support themselves for that period of time. And it takes the onus off of overwhelming the emergency services, the public services and stuff that we’re trying to provide.”

The city hopes to have the new evacuation maps ready to use by late spring.  But you don’t need to wait to put together an evacuation and survival plan for your family or your business. Here are some helpful links.

KMXT’s Emergency Prep Page

State of Alaska 7 Day Kit you can prepare over a period of time

FEMA Page on Emergency Kits


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