The Big One (Part 3)

April in Alaska was a slightly schizophrenic period of time: The snow was melting faster than the ground mass could absorb the water, creating so much mud that the season is referred to as “break-up”  instead of “spring”. April of 1964 seemed to fit that pattern when the first hints of green appeared and changes started to happen outside as the weather got warmer.

Oddly enough the first big changes were inside our house: When the dust settled from extensive furniture and bookshelf rearrangement I had my own room again…or to be more precise I had an alcove partially blocked off from the rest of the front room.  It was enough for me to have a trace element of privacy and a place to keep some of my things out on display without instant destruction at the hands of my little sisters.

One of the first items I wanted to put on display also happened to be the product of my first lesson in the principle of caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware”. Like all fifth graders I was powerless to resist the styrene siren call that came from the back of every comic book in the world: The 132 piece Roman Army set. One look at the lavish Russ Heath-rendered battle scene and I was hooked enough to turn a blind eye to the small print which would have alerted me to the fact that

  • The 132 figures included “16 pieces of harmless ammunition” for the 4 working catapults.
  • There were only a half-dozen poses.
  • The figures were one inch-tall flat figures cast in hard styrene plastic instead of the 2 inch full-round soldiers that made up the rest of my collection.

None of which had any bearing on the massive earthquake we’d experience a month earlier, which is in fact  my point. In my fifth-grader’s world we’d all moved on. Never mind we’d just gone through a record breaking quake – more important matters took center stage, like these army men, and comic books.

There were some odd events that I couldn’t help but notice:

Like most growing cities Anchorage had a number of half-rented little strip malls, but within a month of the quake many of those empty storefronts around town began to advertise clearance sales. None of them were established businesses with signage, business cards or normal retail ephemera, just big banners graphically screaming “SALE” or ‘CLEARANCE”. It didn’t bother me that the merchandize was half-heartedly displayed in piles because the prices were great: For example I bought a pair of zippered galoshes for a dollar; a bargain even if the solid color fabric lining the left boot was different from the plaid lining of the right one. It took me a couple of years wearing those mis-matched boots to piece together what was happening with all those  little fly-by-night retail place; they were selling merchandise salvaged from the major stores that had been destroyed during the quake.

There was also the slow decline of the little town of Portage, located at the southern end of Turnagain arm at the junction of Sterling Highway and the access road to Portage glacier. Ground level there had dropped several feet during the quake which meant high tide now flooded the area and all reliable local sources of fresh water were gone. The tides also played havoc with drivers just passing through -. failure to check the tide table could mean a four hour wait parked on replacement bridges that had been constructed above the high water mark.

The roads and bridges were repaired fairly quickly, but the little town never did recover. Being true Alaskans a couple of small businesses tried toughing it out by trucking in potable water, but eventually the residents moved to areas further up the highway to Anchorage. Recovery efforts were made in other areas as well, though as late as the summer of 1978 you could still see the remains of boats that had been tossed like toys when the tsunami hit the small harbor in Seward.

As time passed, the urgency to “quake-proof” buildings and infrastructure was pushed aside by issues like the massive oil reserves found on the North Slope, the Alaska Native Land Claims act, and (for me personally) girls. The Big One was never completely out of my mind though, especially when we’d get another earthquake, be it large or small. I’d always wonder if those efforts to come up with more quake-resistant designs ever came to pass.

I got my answer in 1982 at a Christmas party put on by another officer in my unit at FT Richardson. I found myself in a long conversation with a municipal planner and when I asked him about the status of quake-proofing efforts In Anchorage he looked like a deer in the headlights. I told him that I had gone through the Big One and made an observation about the tremendous growth that had come about in the interim, including growth close to some of the worst-hit areas in 1964.  He stuttered, he stammered then begged off to freshen his drink…and I figured I got my answer.

…and every time a story about seismic activity in Alaska pops up on the Internet, I wonder what the next Big One will do.

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