Quick reversal on tsunami alert calms fears, quells backlash

Communicators can learn from Alaska emergency services, which swiftly retracted a warning for the West Coast following a major earthquake.

One way to preserve your reputation is to admit when you are wrong—right away.

National Weather Service officials worked just as hard to take back their words as they did to spread the alarm after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake off the Alaskan coast triggered fears of a tsunami.

The Washington Post reported:

At its height, a warning was in effect for more than 3,000 miles of coastal zones north of the Washington border: British Columbia and Alaska’s entire southern shoreline including the Aleutian Islands. The National Weather Service sent messages to cellphones in Alaska with the message: “Emergency Alert. Tsunami danger on the coast. Go to high ground or move inland.”

“Based on all available data a tsunami may have been generated by this earthquake that could be destructive on coastal areas even far from the epicenter,” the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.

An announcer on KMXT radio in Kodiak appealed for residents to heed the warning. Many did. A line of cars clogged a snow-covered road heading out of town.

“This is not a drill. Please get out to higher ground,” said the message. “If you are on the flats, get up on one of the hills . . . Just go high.”

The National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, put out an updated alert that canceled the warning for most of the West Coast.

It wrote:

Alerts in the following areas have been canceled because additional information and analysis have better defined the threat.

* The Tsunami Watch is canceled for the coastal areas of California, Oregon and Washington from The Cal./Mexico Border to The Wash./BC Border

* The Tsunami Warning is canceled for the coastal areas of British Columbia, Southeast Alaska and South Alaska and the Alaska Peninsula from The Wash./BC Border to Hinchinbrook Entrance, Alaska (90 miles E of Seward)

* The Tsunami Warning is canceled for the coastal areas of South Alaska and the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands from Chignik Bay, Alaska to Attu, Alaska

For other US and Canadian Pacific coasts in North America, there is no tsunami threat.

Plenty of Twitter accounts worked feverishly to relay the message.

News organizations picked up the cancellation, too:

Twitter remains an important channel for emergency communicators, when it’s accessible: Hawaii’s governor was unable to cancel an errant missile warning recently, because he didn’t know his Twitter password.

Twitter amplifies offline communication modes, as well. Emily Kwong, with Raven radio, tweeted that the loudspeakers used to broadcast alerts were now spreading the all-clear.

Communicators used the emergency warning retractions to clarify guidelines about staying safe along the shoreline.

Others pointed out that the alerts proved the tsunami detection and warning system worked:

The swift alert cancellation helped emergency services to maintain credibility with its audience.

The tsunami-related alert and retraction stand in stark contrast to the mishandled emergency warning in Hawaii on Jan. 13 that advised residents to prepare for an incoming missile. The resulting panic lasted nearly 40 minutes, until that erroneous message was rescinded.

What do you think of the emergency response, Ragan/PR Daily readers?

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