50th Anniversary of Great Alaska Earthquake brings agencies together

  • Published
  • By Capt. Melonie San Pietro
  • ALCOM Public Affairs
Tired and sore from a hard day's work, a crew of construction workers packed their things and headed home for the weekend a bit earlier than usual. Twenty minutes later, the walls of their work site in downtown Anchorage began to rumble and shake. In less than five minutes, what would have been a brand new, state-of-the-art apartment building, collapsed into an unrecognizable pile of debris.

It was 50 years ago on Good Friday, March 27, 1964. These construction workers narrowly avoided becoming casualties in the highest magnitude earthquake to ever infringe upon American soil. Lasting nearly four minutes, and resulting in more than $300 million in damage, the 1964 Alaska Earthquake was the second most powerful earthquake recorded in world history. The damage from the 9.2 magnitude earthquake, aftershocks and subsequent tsunamis afflicted the entire state of Alaska, Canada and even parts California, Oregon and Hawaii.

The military's role in the disaster relief effort was prominent and significant.

"Their goal was to relieve immediate extreme discomfort of the people," explained 673rd Air Base Historian Douglas Beckstead.

Within 48 hours, the Army stood up four mess halls and provided water buffaloes throughout the community so people had access to food and water. The Air Force bakery produced as much bread as possible and handed it out to residents. The barracks on base were opened to those who lost their homes. The severely damaged hospital on Elmendorf Air Force Base evacuated in 18 minutes. Within hours, the Army established a fully operational field hospital. Additionally, the control tower at Anchorage International Airport collapsed, killing one controller, and all flights were diverted to Elmendorf Air Force Base's runway. Planes brought everything from food to medical supplies to toys for children.

The military also offered support outside of Anchorage. In three weeks, cargo planes delivered 3.7 million pounds of food, supplies and equipment to damaged areas of Seward, Valdez and Kodiak, said Douglas Beckstead. Five hundred passengers were also transported to safety. The military's involvement was so immense that Military Air Transport Service broke its own disaster relief cargo hauling record.

"It was the military's role to offer assistance until the civil authorities could take over," said Beckstead.

Twenty-one days passed before Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) was able to fully lead the disaster relief effort. .

With 50 to 100 earthquakes occurring across the state every single day, Alaska has more seismicity than any other region in North America and accounts for 11 percent of the world's earthquakes. Because of the frequency of earthquakes and the minimal effects on residents from day to day, it is common for Alaskan residents to grow complacent. But it is feasible that the events of the Great Alaska Earthquake could repeat themselves, and it is vital to ensure residents are prepared.

In commemoration of 50th anniversary of the Great Alaskan Earthquake, the state of Alaska along with the United States Northern Command, United States Transportation Command, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Joint Task Force-Alaska will join forces for Exercise ALASKA SHIELD 2014 from March 27 to April 4.

The exercise will emulate the events of the Great Alaska Earthquake and will require the coordination of every agency that plays part in disaster relief. It will provide an opportunity to test procedures and refine interagency partnerships critical in all phases of response to a catastrophic widespread natural disaster in Alaska.