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OPINION: Quake reminds Alaska of past, future

March 21st, 2011 | Lew Freedman Print this article   Email this article  

Japan's reality is Alaska's worst nightmare.

Images of the ground ruptured by frightening fissures, high-rise buildings collapsed, automobiles junked as if they had competed in a demolition derby, people crushed by tumbling debris, water and food shortages, leave one gasping.

Decades of disaster movies have clouded our minds with pictures of dramatic scenes, but when you know the devastation and suffering is real no high-tech special effects can compete.

Anyone who has grown up in Alaska, or lived in the state for any length of time, has experienced many earthquakes. Earthquakes come with the territory. They come without warning and they come in all magnitudes.

Among my friends in the Lower 48, I can't name one who has lived through a 7.0 or higher quake. But among my friends in Alaska, I can't name one who hasn't.

Of all of the people in the world with sympathy for Japan because of the recent 8.9 magnitude quake that also spawned deadly tsunamis and nuclear reactor meltdown threats, no one can identify better than Alaskans with long memories or with thorough knowledge of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.

The moment I heard the 8.9 figure I thought, "That's the fourth or fifth largest earthquake in history." (It was fifth). And, "That's not as big as the Alaska earthquake." (That was 9.2.)

After all reading, research and conversations with people who survived the 1964 earthquake, I concluded that the human toll in Alaska would have been much, much worse, if the state was as densely populated as it is now.

The Japanese earthquake only confirms it. Right now we only have vague estimates of the casualty toll. It will be some time before the Japanese government provides an "official" death toll. The destruction from the shake and the waves will some day be catalogued in the billions of dollars.

Given the volatility of Alaska's fault lines and the fact that smaller quakes, from 2.3 to 4.9, happen all of the time, the sobering reminder provided by an 8.9 earthquake is there but for the grace of God goes Alaska.

Only a week prior to the Japanese earthquake a violent earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand. The epicenter of the Japanese quake was in the ocean. The epicenter of the smaller New Zealand earthquake was much closer to that large city and the ruination was much more tightly focused. And that quake was around 6.8. The astonishing comment made in comparing the two earthquakes was that the Japanese rumble was 8,000 times more powerful.

I have been through Alaska quakes that shook the house, shook my office, or shook the store I was shopping in. I have watched light fixtures sway and felt a crisp, hard enough jolt to the earth's crust to change conversation into silence. But the moments always passed within seconds and the physical damage was always negligible.

I was not in Alaska in 1964 when the ground tore apart, waves pounded shorelines, and fires ripped through Seward. Those I have talked with say being caught in a 9.2 earthquake is something you remember forever. No matter how much time passes, when another shake strikes, even if it is for five seconds and is a comparatively light 4.5, the mind flies back in time to the Big One. And until the ground or the walls stop shaking, there is a place deep inside a survivor of 9.2 that leaves them wondering if this quake is the Big One all over again.

One link between the Japanese earthquake of the moment and the Alaska earthquake of 1964 thoroughly amazes me. In 1964, a fast-moving tidal wave killed 11 people and wrecked the community of Crescent City, Calif., about 2,000 miles south of Anchorage. In 2011, a tidal wave moving at 500 mph crossed the Pacific Ocean from Japan, killed a man and wrecked a portion of the coast line of Crescent City, Calif.

Twice in a lifetime.

No rules govern Mother Nature. It is terrifying to contemplate a recurrence of 9.2, but there is also no evidence to suggest Alaska is immune from a repeat.

Lew Freedman is a former Alaska journalist and the author of numerous books about the state.


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