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NEWS | March 26, 2014

50 years ago, Alaska quake became early model for joint disaster response

By Bill Boehm National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. - At 5:36 p.m. on March 27, 1964, a 9.2 magnitude earthquake erupted 80 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska, in Prince William Sound.

The quake triggered action by the Alaska Army National Guard, which had just finished annual training at Fort Richardson, adjacent to Anchorage. The Good Friday quake was the most severe seismic event in U.S. history since use of the Richter scale began in the 1930s. The area was lightly populated then. Alaska had just achieved statehood five years earlier and it was the least-populated state in the nation.

Anchorage, located close to the earthquake's epicenter, sustained the brunt of damage. However, smaller coastal communities such as Seward, Valdez, Kodiak and Whittier also suffered significant damage.

The annual drill brought together more than 1,300 men. This included the 1st and 2nd Scout Battalions, composed primarily of native Alaskans from villages along the Arctic rim; the 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry (3-297 INF); the 216th Transportation Company; the 910th Engineer Combat Company; and smaller signal, ordnance and Special Forces detachments.

This was the first large-scale domestic response challenge in Alaska's National Guard history.

To provide security for the stricken area, the National Guard Bureau extended the Alaska Guard's field training status for three days, keeping the entire Alaska Guard on active duty status.

Troops headed to the city center within one hour of the first jolts. Elements of the two Scout battalions cordoned off sections of downtown Anchorage that had been most heavily affected within two hours of the initial shocks.

In spite of some confusion after the first rumblings, the native Alaskan troops proved crucial in the critical stage of stabilizing the lives and property of Anchorage residents. With large fissures in city streets and unstable structures often teetering precariously, securing the urban perimeter was critical.

Immediate aftermath

Multiple calamities occurred in the quake's aftermath. Ruptured fuel storage tanks and gas lines increased chances of fire or explosions. A hazardous situation took hold, since regions with high water tables and lesser stability were hit by multiple landslides. The highly concentrated movement of the temblor caused four major landslides in the Anchorage area, most notably at Fourth Avenue, L Street, Government Hill and the Turnagain neighborhood.

On a larger scale in the rural areas, the scepter of a tsunami disaster caused by the earthquake's seismic shock heavily damaged seaside ports. The communities of Whittier and Seward bore the brunt of this powerful wave movement that quickly swept over shorelines, swallowing harbor and commercial structures in seconds.

Radio and telephone service went down; however, the military and civilian responders restored lines of communication through the efforts of ham radio operators. Their over-air transmissions did not depend on landlines or transmission towers upended by the force of the quake.

Severe buckling in the terrain formed large fissures on the land surface. Noticeable in photographs taken after the quake are very large areas of buckling, some measuring 10 feet long. These created such a differential in the elevation that throughout the remainder of the 1960s, multiple blocks of Anchorage were simply leveled and redeveloped.

Joint cooperation in the midst of disaster

The large active-duty Army contingent of about 25,000 troops quartered at nearby Fort Richardson offered assistance. About an hour after the earthquake started, the Army Provost Marshal from the post went into Anchorage and contacted civilian authorities at the downtown Public Safety Building. The official sought to see what post personnel could do to help.

The Public Safety Building became the emergency operations center for the city. Throughout the emergency period, the provost marshal acted as the Army liaison officer between the active local Army command, United States Army Alaska (USARAL), the city police department and the Anchorage Civil Defense with the primary function of coordinating requests for assistance between civil defense and USARAL.The military operation assumed the name "Operation Helping Hand."

At 8 p.m., police requested active Army troops to assist in securing Anchorage against possible looting and to control the movement of people in affected areas.

From this initial point of involvement, the assistance from the military in the community of Anchorage expanded considerably.

Beyond Anchorage, the Alaska National Guard placed the 2nd Battalion, 216th Transportation Company in state active duty and ordered members to move forward to Seward, located southeast of Anchorage. The 2-216 reported a massive landslide along the Seward Highway en route to their home base. Their bulletin alerted the public, thus avoiding possible further catastrophe. This reconnaissance activity in rural areas helped identify potential trouble spots as the situation unfolded on the 27th of March and throughout that weekend.

Other Soldiers opened armories as refugee quarters and undertook search and rescue efforts. When communication lines reopened, Anchorage radio stations announced that Kulis Air National Guard Base was being used as a site for evacuees from damaged areas or refugees without shelter for the night. Communication with the public, and keeping the communities of Alaska within close proximity, remained a constant maxim.

No question remained over who would manage the situation. Local authorities incorporated the efforts of the Alaska National Guard personnel augmenting the security of the Anchorage area and beyond. Later in the evening of March 27, representatives from such charitable organizations as the Red Cross and The Salvation Army came together at state civil defense headquarters in Anchorage to coordinate an overall state disaster operation. This centralized all relevant disaster relief operations and smoothly coordinated a unified effort amid all the surrounding destruction.

Outside assistance mobilizes

The Operation Helping Hand effort involved incorporating Army and Air National Guard assets from other states. Also participating in the operation was the 144th Transportation Battalion (Terminal) from the Washington ARNG. This unit took 16 men who transported a tugboat from Tacoma to Anchorage, which helped the Alaska Railroad clear docks and piers. For the Washington contingent to have this kind of asset proved helpful for their shipping activity, yet for this to be used in a time of urgent trouble proved that redirecting resources and using flexible strategies in times of crisis would mark disaster response in years to come.

Even with the large active duty presence throughout the state of Alaska, civilian control over military assets remained intact. Federal troops deferred to the local authorities in providing assistance to stricken areas.

Air Guard contributions

The Alaska Army National Guard presence, coupled with active Army personnel from Fort Richardson, provided the bulk of responders to the earthquake. Still, members of the ANG's 144th Air Transport Squadron based at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage helped rescue victims in Anchorage and provided food and shelter to them, reestablished vital communications across the state, and airlifted rescue workers and supplies to other stricken communities. The unit's C-123Js flew 77 sorties airlifting 201 passengers and 131,054 pounds of cargo within a week during its relief operations.

The airlift capabilities proved essential in Valdez, as a C-123 carrying fuel became the first sign of disaster recovery to the damaged local airport after the tsunami and earthquake. Air Guardsmen from four other states who flew 12 airlift missions carrying relief supplies to Alaska aided them.

More help turns out

From California, Arizona, and Utah, Air National Guard units provided airlift support to affected Alaskans. These units included the 197th Air Transport Squadron, Arizona Air National Guard, based at Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix; the 146th Air Transport Wing, California Air National Guard, based in Van Nuys, Calif., near Los Angeles; and the 151st Air Transport Group, Utah Air National Guard, based in Salt Lake City.

While this kind of neighboring state assistance occurs commonly now, this particular response in 1964 notably used airlift capability to move segments of the population great distances in order to facilitate rescue and recovery. Alaskans' dependence on air travel to evacuate dangerous, uninhabitable sectors made this multistate response necessary.

Casualties and damage

The earthquake killed 116 people and the resultant tsunami caused 15 fatalities in the Pacific Northwest. Property damage totaled more than $300 million, approximately $2 billion in current dollars.

Anchorage suffered extensive damage due to the preponderance of buildings clustered in the central business district, yet incorporated many lessons from the disaster to upgrade building codes and allow the area to expand its economic base with the construction of the Alaska Pipeline in the early 1970s and the continued exodus of new arrivals to the 49th state.

Aftermath and lessons learned

Larry Zoeller, writing in the "National Guardsman," said that "the overall impression of the Guard's Alaskan operation was one of discipline and order. It seemed that wherever the Guard went, common sense, organization and efficiency became the rule. Immediate, directed action was the Guardsman's answer to every situation. They were ready and they got the job done."

The earthquake caused extensive property damage, even given the lack of structures and populated settlements compared to mainland locations. Alaska's population density was less than present day, so overall property damage totals did not approach those from other later U.S. earthquakes, such as Loma Prieta temblor outside San Francisco in 1989, and Northridge, Calif., in 1994.

The interruption of communications led to greater redundancies in backup systems. The Alaska Civil Defense then established an emergency network to serve this purpose. Widespread improvement in technology enabled government planners to expand their capabilities in the decades since the Good Friday Quake.

Today, Alaska has the capacity to deal with disasters over longer distances. Legislation made possible such units as the 211th Rescue Squadron, serving under the auspices of the 176th Wing, Alaska Air National Guard, that could carry out many dangerous missions to save lives and ease suffering in catastrophes.

The National Guard also trains in joint situations, often with neighboring states under the memoranda of agreement such as Emergency Management Assistance Compacts (EMACs). In addition to these multistate arrangements, exercises take place with both the Army and Air Force. These also include larger exercises with USNORTHCOM or USPACOM that allow still greater flexibility.