(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct an error about the need for a ship to go out to sea during a tsunami warning. The original said 200 feet from shore. The sory was corrected to say the ship needs to be in waters 200 feet deep.)
People expected to see the Tustumena make her way up the main channel into Kodiak Wednesday morning, but the ferry was hours away, halfway between Kodiak and Homer. The reason: her departure from Homer had been delayed by Tuesday night’s tsunami warning, triggered by a powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake south of the Aleutian Islands.
The ship was in the process of loading for its trip to Kodiak when the warning went out. The captain and crew immediately began to prepare to head out to sea. Not only did they have to go through the steps on their emergency checklist, but there was a truck on its elevator. Before the Tustumena could sail, the truck had to be moved and the elevator readied for departure.
The ship and its full crew were able to leave Homer Spit, a long finger of land that stretches out into Kachemak Bay, and head out to deep water in just 13 minutes. The captain of the “Trusty Tusty,” as the ferry is known in the communities she serves, said he was proud of his crew’s fast work.
“Luckily there wasn’t a tsunami,” Capt. John Mayer said. “This spit, it’s extremely exposed. A tsunami would inundate the whole spit.”
Mayer said, in the event of a tsunami, the Tustumena needed to move into waters at least 200 feet deep — to escape the dangers of what he calls a “giant rotating circle of energy.” Mayer says out in open water, there’s plenty of space for the energy to rotate, so the tsunami only generates waves a few feet high. But he says the waves that break closer to shore have nowhere to go.
“That’s when you see the water levels rise and the waves coming in,” Mayer said, “and you don’t want to be anywhere near that. If you remember seeing pictures of the Japanese tsunami and those fairly big ships getting washed up onto the beach, that’s what would happen.”
And that’s exactly what happened in Kodiak and other Alaskan coastal communities after the 1964 earthquake, when the tsunami it generated washed away cars, ripped buildings apart and tossed ships onto the land.
But on Tuesday night, the tsunami turned out to be a non-event. Mayer said passengers hadn’t yet boarded the ferry in Homer and were evacuated to higher ground.
Due to coronavirus restrictions, the crew is not allowed to leave the ship while in port, so they were already on board anyway, which helped to expedite the departure.
When the tsunami warning ended, the ship finished loading up and got underway in the morning. The Tustumena arrived in Kodiak at about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, about four hours late.