Ami Pyune, owner of Surf Laundry in Anchorage, tapes windows damaged in the earthquake on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN)
I was sitting in a Midtown Anchorage coffee shop that Friday morning when the ground jolted — suddenly, violently, loudly. It was 8:29 a.m., and there was nothing subtle about it. The whole place was shaking, and it didn’t stop. People calmly made their way to the door, cellphones in hand, out onto the chilly sidewalk and parking lot. Then it stopped. We exhaled. Pretty much everyone was on their phone, talking or texting. When I stepped back inside, the overhead lights were still swaying. Plaster was on the floor. Coffee had splashed all over the tables. Then the first aftershock hit.
Across Southcentral Alaska, crazy things were happening everywhere: Dishes launched off shelves and out of kitchen cabinets; jars and bottles crashed onto store floors; windows shattered; cracks spidered across walls and ceilings. And worse: In some places, the ground cracked open. Water pipes broke and spewed. A few stretches of roads and highways collapsed and buckled. Buildings were jarred and jolted, and in some cases were badly damaged. People hid under desks, scrambled outdoors, looked after each other. Then they started cleaning up.
We’ve been telling these stories for the past week.
No one died. Basic infrastructure pretty much held together. A week later, and after hundreds of aftershocks, the extent of the damage is still being tallied. We always experience a fair number of earthquakes in this part of Alaska. Some are little “did-you-feel-that?” rumbles; some are more substantial, and make us think of what’s possible. Social media always erupts when the earth shakes, but the news stories usually have a line that goes something like: ”There were no immediate reports of injuries or serious damage.” This time was different. There were injuries. And damage, a lot of it, and some of it substantial. But in the week since the 7.0 earthquake hit on Nov. 30, the thing we’ve all heard again and again, the thing we’ve been telling each other, is that it could have been so much worse. We have a lot to be thankful for.
For us here, the earthquake coverage started immediately, and a week later hasn’t stopped. People on our newsroom staff were like the rest of the community when it hit: We were in the middle of our morning routines, on our way to work, getting kids off to school, settling in at our desks. Our morning news crew had been up and running for hours, and when the quake hit, the team instantaneously expanded. The telecommunications and power infrastructure was pretty much intact here, including internet and cell coverage, so people began working wherever they were - talking with others, getting a sense of what was happening, moving around, writing stories, making pictures, listening. We chartered a plane to see and photograph what was happening from the air. We flew our drone to make photos. One of the pictures from the plane, of torn-up Vine Road out in the Valley, became an iconic image of the earthquake and circulated around the world.
Vine Road, south of Wasilla, was heavily damaged by an earthquake on November 30, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Marc Lester/)
People here were dealing with their own stresses and uncertainties - loved ones to check on, kids to pick up, homes to check, messes to clean. We juggled, tried to build a lot of flex into our work schedules, and still covered a lot of ground. We talked to many people in many places. And it continued all week. Over the past week, we’ve published dozens of articles about the earthquake and aftermath, and they’ll continue as the story evolves. Everyone who experienced last Friday morning in Southcentral has a story to tell. We’ve tried to tell many of them and to be a clearinghouse for information: Timely, useful, informative and, we hope, compelling. Since the moment the earthquake hit, readership on all our platforms has been high. Last Sunday’s newspaper sold out.
Which brings me to this: If you care about local news in Anchorage and Alaska — and especially if you’re consuming our content regularly — you really should subscribe. It’s not expensive and it helps power local journalism in your community.
From the get-go, we asked readers for input, and we’ve heard from a lot of you with questions, suggestions, support, ideas for making the coverage better.You shared your stories, your photos, your videos. What we do is always a two-way conversation. We’ve incorporated many of your ideas into our coverage. Keep passing along your tips and questions, and let us know how we can be useful. We’ll keep telling Alaska’s story, providing news and information, digging in and explaining why things are the way they are, and how they might improve.
Here’s wishing everyone well. As always, thanks for reading and thanks for subscribing.
\To submit am opinion piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.
Morris is associate professor of history at Union College in Schenectady, New York, and the author of a forthcoming book on Hurricane Camille and the politics of disaster relief.
FILE - In this Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 file photo, a vehicle is trapped on a section of road that collapsed during an earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska. The collapsed roadway that became an iconic image of the destructive force of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake and its aftershocks was repaired just days after the quake. The off-ramp connecting Minnesota Drive and a road to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport reopened Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, with shoulder work finished Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dan Joling, File ) (Dan Joling/)
In the aftermath of Friday’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck near Anchorage, CNN relayed a presidential tweet: "Trump tweets to Alaska: ‘Federal Government will spare no expense.’ "
Future historians will have to assess where this disaster fits in the broader story of the Trump presidency and its management of catastrophes such as Hurricanes Maria and Harvey or the California wildfires. But President Donald Trump's tweet, and the assumption that the federal government will open its checkbook for the state, recalls another Alaska earthquake that decisively altered the trajectory of American disaster politics, one that permanently increased national responsibility for disaster recovery.
The 9.2-magnitude seismic shocker known as the "Great Alaska Earthquake" that struck on the evening of March 27, 1964, was the largest recorded earthquake in U.S. history. More powerful than the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, it crumpled roads and toppled buildings in Anchorage, sent shock waves and a tsunami south toward the U.S. Pacific coast, and caused the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington, to sway ominously. According to a recent U.S. Geological Survey reexamination, it was powerful enough that it "caused the entire Earth to ring like a bell."
The earthquake, despite its seismic significance, never attained the same historical repute as the one that had devastated the bustling city of San Francisco a half-century earlier. Alaska in the mid-1960s was sparsely populated and had been a state for only five years. But the quake deserves recognition for the disaster policies cobbled together in its aftermath, policies that would have a profound effect on the trajectory of American disaster policy into the 21st century.
The earthquake hit at a moment when federalism still dictated the contours of disaster responsibility. State, local and private agencies (most important, the American National Red Cross) were still the front line of response and recovery. Though the federal government had robustly mobilized for big events such as the 1906 earthquake and the 1938 New England hurricane, the ongoing federal role was limited primarily to reconstruction of public facilities and providing low-interest loans through the Small Business Administration to homeowners and business to rebuild.
Even those policies were relatively recent, dating to the 1930s and codified in the 1950 Disaster Relief Act. The presumption remained, at least on paper, that the federal government would remain a secondary player in meeting disaster needs.
In Alaska in 1964, however, the earthquake thrust together a young state government and federal officials with expansive views of national power and responsibility. Four days after the quake, President Lyndon B. Johnson was informed in a phone call by Kermit Gordon, the Budget Bureau director, that Alaska would struggle to recover: "As you know, it's a very weak state government that just doesn't have the tools and the skills and the expertise that other states have, and I gather the leadership in the state government is not very good." In an era when the federal government was energetically compensating for states' inability or unwillingness to meet national standards, from civil rights to pollution, an expanded federal effort in Alaska was a no-brainer.
Johnson converted a state-federal economic development commission that was in the works into a Federal Reconstruction and Development Planning Commission for Alaska. Congress in turn passed no fewer than four acts in the following months, replenishing the president's disaster fund and authorizing hundreds of millions of dollars in direct grants to the state to assist in recovery, far above what had been extended to states by the federal government in previous years. Congress also provided special provisions for disaster victims, including more generous 30-year low-interest loans, write-offs for some federally subsidized loans and special loans to pay off previously existing mortgages.
Alaska's unique status - a sparsely populated new state facing the aftermath of an immense disaster - helped justify what was then seen as a one-off exception to the traditional balance of disaster policy. But once the marker for Alaska had been set, it quickly became the standard. When Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans in fall 1965, the powerful Louisiana congressional delegation leaned on Johnson to support an even broader program of relief and reconstruction for the flooded city.
Earlier, in the spring of 1965, when devastating tornadoes hit the Midwest, Indiana Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh had sought, as one Indianapolis newspaper headline described it, "Quake-Type Aid in Tornado Repairs." Bayh, less influential than Senate Majority Whip Russell Long, D-La., didn't get the Alaska-style aid he wanted for Indiana. But seeing what happened in Louisiana months later led him to pursue a national policy of extensive federal disaster assistance, opening "the great purse strings of Uncle Sam," as he told me later, to states, localities and individuals.
This bore fruit in the Disaster Relief Act of 1970, which followed Category-5 Hurricane Camille's devastation of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. That act made permanent a range of federal disaster benefits that were pioneered following Alaska and New Orleans. Four years later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes, Congress passed the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, which created the Presidential Disaster Declaration system. The Stafford Disaster Relief Act of 1988 updated and revised this law. But its core principles are still what, today, gives the federal government primacy in funding the rebuilding of disaster-struck areas.
There's a wide gulf between the Alaska earthquakes of 1964 and 2018, geologically and politically. But tracing the roots of President Trump's afternoon tweet to that afternoon phone call to President Johnson helps us understand the path to where we stand now, with the federal government shouldering a significant share of the burden of rebuilding following major catastrophes.
Distributed by The Washington Post.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.