If, during childhood, I had experienced anything like the unforgettable phenomenon and terror of a major earthquake, I might have grown up with the inspiration to become a geologist. When the catastrophic magnitude 9.2 earthquake struck Southcentral Alaska on Good Friday in 1964, however, I was a young child living in Pittsburgh with no knowledge of the natural laws of geology.
Anchorage’s recent M7 earthquake—on November 30, 2018 at 8:29 a.m.—was also unforgettable. And I’ve thanked my lucky stars every day since that I was nowhere near Alaska for the much greater one of 1964.
I’m not sure if neuroscientists have written much about the lingering psychological effects caused by major earthquakes. (I’m writing this from Southeast Alaska after gladly accepting an invitation from friends to get away from the shakes and rolls. Only trouble is, I’m situated on the north Gulf Coast of Alaska, where the Yakutat block is thrust into the Fairweather Fault, one of the fastest moving terranes on the planet.)
I’ve been thinking about the mental and physical changes I immediately felt as the earthquake hit.
That morning, I was alone in my small, one-story ranch house on very flat ground, sitting at my laptop working. The entire structure, violently jerked and swayed, wall to wall. The power instantly went out. My coffee sloshed completely out of the cup and onto the floor.
Within the inner recesses of the mind, in its substrata, a major transition occurred. I can only describe it as a kind of cognitive liquefaction.
In that harrowing moment in the midst of the pitch blackness, my rational faculties went slip-sliding away, too, and my brain—as I have tried explaining it to my friends—turned into a glob of goo. And when that happened, another part surfaced, some long-hidden, primal instincts temporarily took control.
My whole body trembled, convulsed. This is it. On a Richter Scale of Fear, I registered an 11.
I ran screaming to the front door and stood frozen with indecision, then collapsed onto the doorstep. With both hands shaking, I called anybody I could think of who might come over, crying through very jumbled words. The M7 unleashed 90 percent of the total energy, far more power than all the subsequent aftershocks combined, a fact I later learned from the hard-working seismologists—and something to frequently remind myself about.
Within 15 minutes after the M7, a male friend who happened to be driving nearby (he thought the wheels were coming off the axle of his Suburban) came to my rescue. This is what he found: a helpless, disoriented creature, a woman curled into a heap, barely able to speak or stand up straight. And yet, by extraordinary good fortune I hadn’t sustained a single cut or bruise and my five-year old house was still standing. I gazed up at him, hugged him, and then in my desperate, semi-delirious state with my arms locked around his neck, I practically strangled him.
A reluctant confession from my independently-minded self. The more primitive part of the brain the brain responded: “It’s good to have a man with me.”
I was not able to sleep a wink that first night, as most everybody I know in the Anchorage area has admitted—men, too. All night long, I sat in a chair positioned close to the front door, fully clothed, wrapped in a blanket, with my car keys, winter coat, boots, hat, gloves, and fully-charged cell phone.
To help counter my fears, I searched for the blue Rosary beads that once belonged to my now deceased mother. I found them in a small jewelry box, took them out and muttered a few prayers. Not a rational gesture by any means.
For days, my legs felt as if I had been on a Bering Sea crab boat; it was hard to stay balanced while working in my kitchen, especially if another aftershock hit. I jumped with every loud or unexpected sound I heard, every creak or vibration, whether it came from the refrigerator’s ice maker, wind rattling a vent, a freight truck rumbling down Lake Otis Parkway, the furnace kicking on—even the ding from an incoming text message would set me off.
In my quest to relieve some of the psychological stress, it has helped to review the history of North America’s most powerful earthquake.
After the epic M9.2 earthquake in 1964, teams of geophysicists, geologists, and engineers immediately swarmed into Southcentral Alaska.
“Hundreds of foot soldiers of science, in pursuit of the secrets of the inner earth, roamed around,” as Time-Life Books reported in their popular Planet Earth series from 1982. Our young state was turned into a “a full-scale laboratory experiment.”
During the data-collecting frenzy of the 1960s—and it must be happening now, as well—scientists and engineers studied aerial photos and soils maps, they measured landslides and fault scarps, looked at groundwater movements, and scrutinized buildings and other structures.
Those passionate scientists did anything and everything possible to fully analyze the physical mechanisms involved. The total energy output of the 1964 event was estimated to be the incomprehensible equivalent of 240 million tons of TNT, as one report said. And that unfathomable energy and force pulsed through 100,000 square miles of land, either heaving it up or dropping it downward.
After years of study, the much-anticipated professional papers were produced summarizing crucial scientific findings of M9.2.
USGS’s final report, Professional Paper 546, “The Alaskan Earthquake—Lessons & Conclusion” stated that M9.2. generated more scientific study from all scientific disciplines than any single previous national disasters in U.S. history up until that time.
Six hundred miles of fault ruptured at once and moved up to 60 feet, releasing about 500 years of stress buildup.
Over 130 people were killed, most by tsunamis—including 16 deaths on Oregon and California shorelines. The earthquake lasted almost five minutes and the aftershocks continued for a psychologically damaging 18 months.
One side of Fourth Avenue, as we all know from the iconic earthquake photos, buckled and cracked wide open and dropped over six feet. Seward, Valdez, and Chenega—to name a few locations—were decimated. Some areas near Kodiak were permanently raised by 30 feet, and over 60 fishing vessels were sunk or severely damaged in Kodiak harbor.
For further comparisons, I recently watched a 46-minute documentary film. “Though the Earth Be Moved,” produced by the U.S. Office of Civil Defense, reported that one million gallons of jet fuel spilled at the Anchorage airport in 1964. The film showed the one-year-old, JC Penny store in downtown Anchorage, demolished. Slabs of falling concrete killed two people.
Another important fact must be noted: I am done with aftershocks, though lately, they have grown much weaker.
Anchorage residents, as the Anchorage Daily News not long ago reported, still suffer from anxiety. The M7 epicenter was too close (less than 15 miles away) to simply forget it happened. Since the main shock, 40 aftershocks of magnitude 4.0 or greater have frayed nerves, disturbed and frightened children and pets. Being home alone is probably not the best thing, counselors have advised.
Even though I’ve lived in this seismic land for decades and have been in plenty of other earthquakes and tremors, I had not yet gotten around to the serious business of reviewing and filling the “survival checklist.”
However, the M7 (which sounds like a galaxy) has jolted me and my friends into a new reality. We have acquired a heightened state of awareness about where exits are in public places, and where the highest elevation points are if we live in coastal areas. In the city, we are worried about the Port of Anchorage’s further structural deterioration and our overall food security.
We are tallying water jugs, battery supplies, and headlamps. We are investing in propane camp stoves and securing any heavy household objects that could topple over and cause injury. We are storing more cans of sardines and dried beans in our pantry. We’ve made a plan about whose house, if still standing, will be “earthquake central” next time.
A few months have gone by and I have made a conscientious effort to suppress the emotional outbursts, the fears, and to focus more rationally on what I should have done and need to do. (Writing about it has also been a kind of therapy!)
But honestly, one day of unprecedented terror is enough, thank you very much. So says the emotional self, loud and clear. Never again. Woman, you are a weakling and need to toughen up, comes the more commonsense internal response. But it does seem that female friends reported experiencing more lingering side-effects such as nausea, dizziness, and stronger desires to jump on the next plane to Seattle.
One local geophysicist I know, a Stanford graduate who worked on the Earthscope project installing seismometers throughout Alaska, tried consoling me: “The magnitude and frequency of aftershocks, will, over time, diminish,” he said. “So when one occurs, please be happy.”
M7 has also reminded me—or maybe emotionally pummeled me—into remembering what is real and what is abstract. This is the earth. The earth and its powerful forces are real. You more fully comprehend these titanic geophysical changes when you live through them, when you have felt your whole body physically react.
In our 21st century society of technological advancement, global inter-connectivity, and physical comforts with mostly reliable sources of heat, fuel, food, and water, rarely do we think about the consequences of any of that being taken away, with absolutely no notice.
The fact is, according to the Alaska Earthquake Center, Alaska had 55,000 earthquakes in 2018, a new record. And that is an astoundingly real number. Seismically, we are North America’s big daddy. It’s impossible to walk around Alaska geologically numb or indifferent to the dynamism of the ground beneath our feet.
The psychic rebuilding is going to take a while. Those fissures of fear run deep. Alaskans of yesteryear showed grit and resiliency. They bravely stayed put and rebuilt.
Geologists have done remarkable work in the past 50 years to better understand tectonic plates. But with improved mathematical modeling, better instrumentation and satellite observations, many mysteries remain to ignite the scientific curiosities of our species.
Our precious planet, forever in-motion, commands utmost respect and rapt attention. If we are to read its messages–whether geological or climactic–maybe what we are each called to do is to listen more closely to the earth around us. Listening also involves occasionally studying and learning on one’s own.
It is beyond our current scientific capability to predict what kind of earthquake will happen and in what exact location or time frame. We operate on the laws of probability and statistics. Next time, perhaps, I will be better prepared and a little less anxious. But I’ve decided to keep my mother’s prayer beads on the mantle. That way, I can easily grab them in my mad run to the door.