Has Alaska Learned From Its Quake? Many Fear Not

Associated Press

Lidia Selkregg speaks quickly, gesturing intently as she recalls the day the Earth unleashed titanic forces in Alaska and the land slid, heaved and sank.

Deep beneath the coastline of Prince William Sound, giant layers of rock jostled and slipped on March 27, 1964. The earthquake measured 8.5 on the Richter scale, and it killed 131 people as far south as California.

Now Selkregg, a geologist and former Anchorage assemblywoman, says she fears that many officials and developers have forgotten that day’s tragic lessons.


“They want to think they are more powerful than God. Nature is nature,” she said, adding, “I feel terrible that I have to say what I’m saying.”

‘There Will Be One’

Some devastated cities have rebuilt away from the areas that proved vulnerable in 1964, but in others, including Anchorage, reconstruction was on the old sites. Selkregg and others are afraid that will mean greater losses in the next great quake, something they call inevitable.

“I’m positive there will be one, I just don’t know when,” says John Davies, state seismologist. “But I think the tendency is for us to forget the lessons.”

In Anchorage, safety-conscious engineers have clashed with development-oriented landowners since the rebuilding began.

“There is a camp that essentially believes development should go forward anywhere in the city with little or no regard to the consequences of earthquakes,” said Dave Cole, an engineer and past chairman of the city’s advisory Geotechnical Commission.

Anchorage building codes have addressed the safety of buildings, but not the ground beneath. Critics say that means sturdy structures have been built on land that is prone to slide, notably high ground sought after for its views.

‘Nicer Property’

Around Anchorage in 1964, “the primary reason for damage and loss of life was not the shaking of ground, but rather the failure of the bluff areas,” Davies said. “We’re rebuilding on those areas right now.”

Those areas are some of the city’s prime pieces of land.

“It’s nicer property, the view property,” said John Aho, an engineer and 12-year member of the Geotechnical Commission. “It’s been long enough (since 1964) so people have forgotten how hard things can shake.

“The developers are not really into wanting to hear about these things. The administration doesn’t want to hear about these things. People who own the property don’t want to hear.”

Before the quake, homes stood on Turnagain Street. But a quake-triggered landslide dragged the neighborhood into the sea. There is debate over whether the site has been adequately buttressed.

On L Street, site of another major slide, high-rise buildings have been allowed to sprout, looming over condominiums below.

“L Street, that’s the one I have no question saying it will move again if there is a large enough, long enough earthquake,” said Duane Miller, head of the Geotechnical Commission.

But Bruce Phelps, comprehensive planning manager for Anchorage, said he thinks the city has done enough to protect residents, though he acknowledged, “I’m in the minority.”

Developers built in danger areas because “there was no legal way to stop them,” he said.

“It’s a major policy question. ‘Do we develop?’ I don’t know if it was ill-advised or not.”

It may be too late to draft more stringent regulations regarding ground failure. “What happens with the buildings that already exist?” Phelps asked.

$300 Million in Damage

A draft seismic risk study ordered by the city estimates there could be $300 million in damage from another quake as strong as the one in 1964, almost half of it in slide-prone areas, Coles said.

Across Alaska, other cities also have had to deal with the ravages of the monster quake.

The Valdez dock area collapsed into the harbor when 95-foot waves lashed the waterfront. The city since has been moved to more solid ground. The site of the old town stands barren.

“It’s hard to predict what would happen if we had another one,” said Doug Griffin, Valdez city manager. “I believe that we have largely learned from the experience and that it would not be as bad.”

Seward also was in ruins after the 1964 quake. The jolt and 30-foot waves destroyed more than buildings; they also ruined the economy. The city’s railroad tracks, warehouses, fuel tanks, canneries, ship loading and unloading facilities were destroyed.

When the ground started shaking, Seward was the seaport for Alaska’s interior. “After that, everything moved to Anchorage,” said Mayor Harry Gieseler.

“That area was not rebuilt; what we’ve done is move the industrial base across the bay to an area that is safe,” he said.

If another quake and sea wave come, Seward would fare better than last time, Gieseler said. “The way the bay lies, all houses and things are above the 50-foot line, and that’s where the water came up to last time.”

But in Kodiak, there could be a rerun of the 1964 devastation.

“There would be a lot more property loss because . . . when the federal government assisted the city in rebuilding, they rebuilt primarily where the event occurred,” said Gordon Gould, city manager and head of Kodiak’s emergency management organization, which has developed a plan to evacuate the town in 15 to 20 minutes.

Most of the city’s industrial base--canneries, fuel docks, warehouses--is on the waterfront.

“This is a fishing village, and you have to accept a certain amount of risk from the sea,” he said. “Other than build huge dikes, there’s not much you can do.”