Fifty Years Since the Great Alaska Earthquake:
Catastrophic Disaster Planning
If you work in the emergency management field, you’ve probably heard about the 2014 Capstone National Exercise.
For those who haven’t, it’s a complex activity comprised of five distinct, but linked, component events: Alaska Shield, Ardent Sentry 14, Nuclear Weapon Accident/Incident Exercise, EAGLE HORIZON and Silver Phoenix. Together, these activities help us examine the core capabilities described in the National Preparedness Goal.
More specifically, the events and participants included the following:
- Alaska Shield: State emergency management agencies and FEMA will commemorate the anniversary of the 1964 9.2 magnitude Great Alaskan Earthquake with an exercise that tests response, recovery and mass casualty care.
- Ardent Sentry 14: In conjunction with Alaska Shield and other exercise sponsors, the Department of Defense will exercise its Defense Support to Civilian Authorities’ mission.
- Nuclear Weapon Accident/Incident Exercise: The Department of Energy will participate in the Capstone with a scenario that tests response and recovery following an accident during secure transport convoy of nuclear weapons.
- Eagle Horizon 2014: During this exercise, many federal departments and agencies will activate their continuity of operations and reconstitution planning to test their continuity plans and ensure that primary mission essential functions can take place from alternate facilities.
- Silver Phoenix 2014: This recovery focused event is threaded across the entire Capstone and explores challenges associated with prioritizing, and conducting recovery activities involving multiple geographically-dispersed and competing events using the National Disaster Recovery Framework.
Planned activities like Capstone help participants think through how to respond to and recover from a catastrophe. Many different people play a role in how our nation responds to disasters, so these exercises included not only FEMA but also their partners in federal, state, tribal and local government, the private sector, and non-profit and faith-based-organizations.
Bothell, Washington. – FEMA Region X
In March and April, partners from the American Red Cross to the Bonneville Power Administration to the U.S. Army, and many others, joined FEMA for what is known as a table-top exercise, for a larger full-scale exercise.
A table-top is an exercise in which field and logistics movements are “simulated” – while planning and decision-making proceed as if they are actually to taking place.
A table-top is an exercise in which field and logistics movements are “simulated” – while planning and decision-making proceed as if they are actually to taking place.
A similar scenario will play out in late March when many of the same partners participate in a full-scale exercise with “real field and logistical activity.”
The table-top brings more than 100 people to the Region 10 Response Coordination Center in Bothell.
The scenario involves a magnitude 9.2 earthquake and resulting tsunami. Such a quake would be the second strongest in known history, and the largest in known U.S. history. In fact, that largest-ever U.S. quake inspired the scenario; the upcoming full-scale “Alaska Shield” exercise coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964.
The scenario projects the loss of hundreds of lives. Also, it has thousands displaced in an Alaska winter with no power or heat and possibly tens of thousands of buildings damaged. Other problems would include loss of communications and how to moving relief commodities to survivors despite destroyed roads and bridges.
Similar scenario are being played out throughout the US:
Alaska National Guard participates in statewide disaster exercise
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska — Approximately 1,150 Air and Army National Guardsmen from Alaska, Hawaii, Ore., Wash., Neb., Wis., Ariz., Calif., Nev., Idaho, Minn., N.D. and Utah are set to participate in exercise Alaska Shield 2014 across the state, from March 27 through April 2.
“After coming off multiple years of deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq I think this is an invigorating chance for our soldiers to reintegrate themselves back into the community and our soldiers are learning again how to reconnect and this gives us that opportunity to do that”
Region 10 Administrator Kenneth Murphy said of the table-top, “This exercise is important for all of us to work with all of our partners leading up to Alaska Shield, and to make sure that all of our systems are working together smoothly and seamlessly.”
FEMA regularly tests procedures and practices in this way, together with local, state, tribes, and other federal agencies.
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska – Civil Air Patrol volunteers help ensure Alaska’s energy assets are safe and secure during natural disasters by taking pictures and downloading them to federal authorities for analysis.
On March 29, 2014, one such flight took off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to inspect energy platforms as part of the disaster exercise Alaska Shield 2014.
After an earthquake strikes, volunteer pilots with the Civil Air Patrol immediately get up in the air and fly across the state on a damage assessment mission.
The Civil Air Patrol also trains its own photographers how to take pictures of energy production and transport facilities in the event of a natural emergency and how to send photos to federal authorities for analysis.
This day, Jeff Morton, a Civil Air Patrol mission observer, took several hundred pictures of a dozen oil rigs in Cook Inlet.
“We get different shots from many angles, and make sure they are up to the standards required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” said Morton.
An earthquake can damage oil platforms by causing footings to slip and from tsunami activity all of which may cause the structures to ignite or cause large oil spills.
“When it comes to a bridge, the damage is not easily seen, with an oil rig, it’s there or not,” said Ron Preston, a mission pilot with the Alaskan Civil Air Patrol. “There are a cubic million feet in the pipeline [below the rig] at any given moment.”
One of the other oil rigs photographed on this mission was a “mono pod-style” rig with a single shaft of steel rising above the water.
“It’s a pedestal table that is designed to break the ice around it,” said Preston.
More Like This
The devastating megathrust earthquake that struck Alaska 50 years ago Thursday is a pretty good indication of what’s in store for Seattle and the upper regions of the West Coast when the Cascadia Subduction Zone lets one fly.
And we all thought the Nisqually Earthquake of February 28, 2001 was big … well look at these photos from the 9.2 magnitude Alaskan megathrust quake:
Damage from the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964
Luckily these megathrust, magnitude-9 quakes happen only every few hundred years, so Alaska should be fine for many more decades. Unlucky for this part of the Northwest, however: The last Cascadia Megathrust was a few hundred years ago … so we’re due.
On the 314-year anniversary of the last one, the Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup (CREW) published an updated scenario document for what that magnitude of quake would do to us now. The group said in a news release:
“Cascadia’s last great earthquake occurred on January 26, 1700 and stresses have been building on the fault ever since. While the full extent of the earthquake hazard was not realized until the 1980s, the Cascadia subduction zone is now one of the most closely studied and monitored regions in the world.”
And no wonder.
THE CASCADIA SUBDUCTION ZONE: The North American Plate collides with a number of smaller plates: the largest of these is the Juan de Fuca Plate, flanked by the Explorer Plate to the north and the Gorda plate to the south. These smaller plates “subduct” (descend) beneath the North American Plate as they converge along a 700-mile long (1,130 km) boundary. A large portion of the boundary between the subducting and overriding plates resists the convergent motion, until this part of the boundary breaks in a great earthquake.
“Alaskans must be aware of the threat of distant tsunamis and be prepared and ready in the case of a locally generated one,” said Aimee Devaris, acting director of the National Weather Service Alaska Region. “It is critically important that people recognize nature’s warning signs that a tsunami may be imminent such as intense ground shaking, the ocean roaring, or the ocean suddenly retreating.”
Here’s the TEST scenario of what happens in Ketchikan: On Thursday, after weeks of preparation and community outreach, Ketchikan dispatch and the public will be notified of the live code TEST from the National Tsunami Warning Center (NTWC) by the National Weather Service’s (NWS) direct phone and the Emergency Alerting System (EAS). This TEST provides the community an opportunity to practice a DROP! COVER! HOLD ON! Exercise area wide.
As part of Ketchikan’s TEST scenario: Ketchikan experiences a large/intense earthquake throughout the island. The earthquake causes Ketchikan Public Utilities (KPU) concern about the Ketchikan Lakes dam which then triggers the KPU Ketchikan Lakes Emergency Action Plan, at a Condition C; “Non Failure Emergency”. The Ketchikan Borough Fire Chiefs and Ketchikan City Emergency Manager and Police Chief are then contacted by dispatch.
In the TEST, concurrently, the earthquake scenario causes a fuel tank spill at Petro Marine Services’ upper tank farm which escalates to a fire. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (ADOT) work crews realize the Ward Creek Bridge experienced substantial structural damaged during the earthquake. The ADOT maintenance crew contact Ketchikan dispatch regarding the damage, consequentially the bridge is immediately shut down, closing all vehicle access from North Tongass area to the City of Ketchikan and, more importantly the hospital until the damage can be assessed by ADOT engineers. Damage to several residential homes is also reported to dispatch by the public.
As part of the Alaska Sheild exercise, the Ketchikan area Incident Management Team (IMT) will assemble a Joint Information Center (JIC) to address public concern and disseminate the information from the local, state, and federal authorities to the public, quelling the public panic and rumors.
The incidents are handled in less than one operational period and then the Ketchikan area IMT and JIC are demobilized.
Earthquakes are not rare events in Southeast Alaska. In October 2012, a 7.7 magnitude quake that shook the Queen Charlotte Islands grabbed Ketchikan’s attention. This was followed in January 2013 by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that ripped the sea floor about 80 miles west of Craig around midnight on Jan. 4th. That earthquake released most of its energy in the first 20 seconds, but it took 50 seconds for 85 miles of the Queen Charlotte Fault to rupture. The fault slices Earth in a north-south swath just west of Southeast Alaska. The great Alaska earthquake of 1964, by comparison, tore the sea floor for six full minutes.
On June 28, 2004 at approximately 1:49:36 am Alaska Time, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake was also reported off the coast of Southeast Alaska 65 miles WSW of Craig, Alaska.
“The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964” occurred in Prince William Sound. When it was finally over, Anchorage was in ruins, a victim of a massive magnitude 9.2 earthquake, the second largest earthquake ever recorded in world history. The 1964 Alaskan Tsunami generate by the quake was the second largest ever recorded, following the May 1960 Chile earthquake with a magnitude 9.5.
Much of the damage and most of the lives lost during the 1964 quake were due to the effects of water waves. These were mainly of two kinds: the tsunami of open-ocean sea wave, generated by large-scale motion of the sea floor; and the local wave, generated by underwater landslides in bays of fiords. Of the deaths attributable to the effects of the ocean, about one-third were due to the open-ocean tsunami: 4 at Newport Beach, Oregon; 12 at Crescent City, California; and about 21 in Alaska. Local waves claimed at least 82 lives. Maximum height reported for these waves were 229 feet in Valdez Arm.
The 1964 earthquake effects were heavy in many other Alaska towns, including Chitina, Glennallen, Homer, Hope, Kasilof, Kenai, Kodiak, Moose Pass, Portage, Seldovia, Seward, Sterling, Valdez, Wasilla, and Whittier.
During the 2014 Tsunami Preparedness Week, many television systems are programmed to scroll a standard emergency alert text message and in some cases, the message may not contain the word “TEST.” An audio message will say that the message is only a test, but if the volume is turned down or otherwise unheard, viewers may not realize the message is a test. In addition, siren audio may not contain the word “TEST.”
The test is part of Tsunami Preparedness Week, proclaimed by Gov. Sean Parnell as March 23 to 29, and is a cooperative effort of NOAA’s National Weather Service, Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Alaska Broadcasters Association, and local emergency management officials.
Emergency managers urge coastal residents to review information on what to do in the event of a tsunami. NOAA’s National Tsunami Warning Center web site offers complete information, including the current status of tsunami watches, warnings and advisories. A list of frequently asked tsunami questions and answers as well as tsunami safety rules can be found on the Center’s site under “Education.”
U.S. Tsunami Warning Centers issue tsunami travel time forecasts for a pre-determined set of coastal locations.
When the big wave comes, will my house be under water? Researchers at the Alaska Earthquake Information Center released a a new map outlining which parts of Sitka would be affected by a major tsunami.
On January 4, 2013, just before midnight, Sitkans woke up to feel the ground shaking beneath them. Then came the tsunami siren, warning everyone to get to high ground.
“The thing that got people excited about it was that we actually felt the quake, and we heard the siren, and we hadn’t heard the siren in probably 20 years.”
Matt Goff takes a look at the new tsunami inundation map created by the Alaska Earthquake Information Center.
In the end, there was no wave. But for many people, it was a wake-up call – what would happen if a big wave did come?
Elena Suleimani is a tsunami modeler at the Alaska Earthquake Information Center, and it’s her model that the new map is based on.
“I’ve been studying tsunamis all my life,” she said.
According to Suleimani, the worst-case-scenario for Sitka – the scenario on which the map is based – would be a big earthquake on the subduction fault that stretches from Kodiak to Prince William Sound. That fault produced The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, the second largest quake ever recorded anywhere.
The Queen Charlotte Fault
Closer to home, the Queen Charlotte Fault – which got Sitkans out of bed in January – is a strike-slip fault: the plates are sliding past each other, instead of colliding head-on, and during earthquakes.
They can, however, cause landslides, both on land and on the continental shelf, under water. These landslides can cause their own waves – and it’s almost impossible to model them. That’s, in part, because they occur along smaller faults that haven’t been studied.
Rich Koehler works with Suleimani.
“We haven’t looked at these,” he said. “Nobody has. Partially because they’re covered in – it’s rugged terrain, covered in forest, it’s hard to get to. Anyway. There’s nothing known about these faults, how often earthquakes happen, how big they could be, nothing.”
Still, Suleimani and Koehler said that the largest wave caused by a landslide would still be smaller than the worst-case-scenario “plotted” on the map.
So, at the end of the day, what’s the takeaway? According to Suleimani, no matter what the map says, if you feel the ground shake, go uphill:
“If you are in a coastal area and you feel the ground shaking, just get uphill immediately,” she said.”Don’t wait for any official announcement, don’t wait for sirens. Just go uphill. And stay there for 24 hours.”
Sitka Fire Chief Miller says the key point is to know ahead of time where you’re going, and be ready to head there on a moment’s notice – something many Sitkan’s weren’t prepared for in January.
“You get 9,000 people trying to move all at one time, it’s a zoo at best.” Miller said. “There’s a lot of cars, there were cars going hither and yon at any given time on the street in front of the fire hall.”
“The thing that you’ve got to remember is, this is a computer generated map,” Miller said “In Japan they had the same thing, they did the same studies, had the same results…and then they had the earthquake and Mother Nature said, get ready. I’m coming!”
An expected event in Alaska could affect millions of Americans. Here’s how:
On Thursday, March 27, 2014, a slab of the seafloor larger than human imagination fractures, rumbling beneath the Alaska Peninsula. In several planet-ringing minutes, thousands of years of potential energy releases to become kinetic. A great earthquake occurs right where scientists predicted it would. – More…
National Tsunami Warning Center
West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center – NOAA
Alaska – Department of Military and Veterans Affairs
Alaska Division of Homeland Security & Emergency
DHSEM Exercise – Alaska Division of Homeland Security
Fire Chief, City of Ketchikan
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News Desk: 425-487-4610