'64 Quake: Danger still lurks beneath surface (Published 3/26/89)

Don Hunter
Anchorage Museum

This story was originally published on March 26, 1989, as part of a series on the 25th anniversary of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.

First of three parts

On Good Friday 1964, Anchorage Mayor George Sharrock and banker Bob Baker went to the airport to see off a friend. Afterward, they stopped in the airport bar for a drink.

Baker and Sharrock, like a lot of the city's movers and shakers, lived in the Turnagain area in a neighborhood on the bluffs. In fact, Baker's lawn stretched to the edge, and the banker was worried more of his yard was sliding down to the mud flats every year.

Joking, Sharrock said, "Bob, you'll wake up one of these days and you'll find your home in the Inlet."

A few minutes later, Sharrock was on his way home when his car lurched to the left. He thought he'd had a blowout.

City Councilman Cliff Groh was driving, too, taking a new used car home when the road started moving.

"It's a frightening experience to see the earth roll up and down like a wave, " he said in a recent interview. "The car was actually bouncing up and down in a severe fashion."

Hotel owner and real estate developer Wally Hickel was in the Tokyo airport, talking on the telephone to associates in Anchorage. The line went dead.

"An hour or so later, we heard about this massive earthquake in Anchorage, " Hickel said recently.

"I turned to Al Bramstedt after a few hours. You can ask him. I just said, "Al, we're going to go back and rebuild it.' That was the attitude. "

That was the attitude that prevailed anyway. In the 25 years since disaster came to town, politics and profit have overcome science and common sense at almost every turn. Ignoring the vivid example of 1964 and warnings from scientists both before and after the earthquake, Anchorage's business and political leaders decided to rebuild the city on the ground most likely to fail in the next big earthquake.

As a result, the lessons learned from the Good Friday earthquake by an army of scientists and engineers and politicians have made cities safer across the nation, with one exception.

Anchorage.

LADY LUCK PLAYED A PART

Good luck and good timing combined to limit deaths in Anchorage to nine. The toll could have been 100 times worse.

Through no particular foresight, Anchorage was pretty well prepared for a big earthquake. The town was smaller and a lot sturdier. Onestory houses and small apartments lined the city's edges, where tall concrete and steel office buildings stand today. The wooden homes and twostory buildings that made up the city were wellsuited for the shakes and knocks of earthquakes.

A good thing, too, because in the four minutes or so the earthquake lasted some pretty spectacular things happened:

* A 30block section of the west end of downtown pulled away from the rest of Anchorage and moved toward the inlet. That caused a jagged tear in the earth called a graben from the park strip to near the state courthouse.

* A wing of Government Hill Elementary School broke away and dropped a dozen feet; the second story of West Anchorage High School collapsed.

* On Fourth Avenue, buildings and parked cars dropped 20 feet when the ground fell from under them. On Fifth Avenue, the northeast corner of the new J.C. Penney's department store collapsed. Concrete decorative slabs attached to the building crashed onto the sidewalks and cars parked outside.

* The sixstory Four Seasons apartment building, on the verge of completion at M Street near the park strip, pancaked to the ground.

* Expensive homes in Turnagain were wrenched apart. Some slid a quarter mile into the sea. One of the houses that collapsed with the bluffs was Bob Baker's.

But for all of that, Anchorage escaped two scourges that earthquakes spawn:

* Ruptured pipelines cut off the city's natural gas supply and electricity was knocked out. So no fires started.

* Tidal waves from the earthquake flattened cities from Valdez to Crescent City, Calif., but they missed Anchorage.

Nature's timing helped, too. On the Friday evening before Easter, Government Hill and West High schools were empty. Offices had closed. Most stores, like Penney's, were nearly empty. Construction workers had knocked off at the Four Seasons a halfhour earlier.

Most families were at home, and most homes were away from the treacherous bluffs ringing the city, where sliding soil and cracks in the earth swallowed the sturdiest structures.

Some day an earthquake will turn Anchorage upside down again. After all, we sit in the middle of one of the world's most active earthquake belts; between 1889 and 1965, seven earthquakes measuring more than 8.0 occurred in Alaska, and 69 registered 7.0 or more.

How big an earthquake does it have to be?

The bluffs surrounding Anchorage show the traces of many ancient landslides, said state seismologist John Davies. They could give way under the stress of a smaller earthquake than the one that caused Cliff Groh's car to bounce up and down, he said.

"I think there is geological evidence you don't need a 1964sized quake to trigger landslides, " he said. "Maybe a garden variety 7.5 will do."

That earthquake will strike a more vulnerable Anchorage. Today, the western rim of downtown is home to highrise office buildings with luxury condominiums on upper floors.

"If you do the comparisons between now and 1964, " says Davies, "Anchorage has five times the population today, and of course the bluff areas that slid in 1964 have been built up even more.

"I think it's obvious that when the next big earthquake occurs that triggers landslides, there will be much more damage."

What happens to a fivestory building on a cliff when the cliff goes away?

It collapses. Or topples. Or slides down the bluff.

What happens to the people inside?

Nobody knows for sure. Maybe some of them get out. Maybe a lot of them get hurt. Maybe some of them die.

"The building codes are quite sound, " Davies said. "The problem is that the building codes assume you are building on stable ground."

"If the ground goes away, " said geotechnical engineer David Cole, "basically, you've got a problem."

And the timing?

Maybe, like the one George Sharrock first mistook for a blowout, the next big quake will roll into town after hours, when downtown is deserted.

But maybe it will strike at midmorning on a weekday when thousands of people sit at desks and behind counters in the buildings along the bluff: secretaries, store clerks, lawyers, cooks, state workers, citizens hoping for a break at the courthouse, crooks praying for one.

If Anchorage's luck is out, if Nature's timing is bad, a lot of people will pay a big price. Because the city's bankers and businessmen and politicians ignored more than scientific advice. They passed up the best chances humans here had to minimize the effects of the next earthquake abandoning the bluff, building buttresses, building the low, wooden structures that resist the stresses of an earthquake best. In fact, they did just the opposite.

Why?

REBUILDING ON SHAKY GROUND

"A week after the earthquake, a number of geologists in the Anchorage area put out a report, " Mayor Sharrock said. "They made a fine report, but they almost recommended moving the town. We had a lot of controversy over that.

"I suppose it's a natural reaction, " Sharrock said. "People have property, have a lot of money invested in it . . . The consensus was, Anchorage would stay where it was."

One of those downtown investors was Wally Hickel, who had returned to Anchorage two days after the earthquake to find his home standing, his family living in a motel and the springs down the hill from his back yard still running.

The running water convinced Hickel the earthquake had stabilized the ground and that it was safe to rebuild Anchorage.

Hickel set about convincing the rest of Anchorage. He owned property in two of the areas hardest hit by the earthquake the west edge of downtown and Turnagain.

"I was trying to get some confidence back in the city, " Hickel said in a recent interview. "I announced I was going to build a hotel here."

"Here" is the site of the Captain Cook, the flagship of Hickel's hotel empire, a stone's throw from where the ground wrenched apart and moved 12 feet toward the inlet creating the graben.

"From the standpoint of displaying faith in the community, " said Groh, "I would say Mr. Hickel did that most dramatically when he announced, earthquake or not, he was going to build his tower. And, of course, the graben, which was a hole approximately 10 feet deep and perhaps 15 feet wide (between K and L Street), is 150 feet away from where Hickel was going to build."

Dramatic it was. But it was also foolhardy, according to the recommendations of an informal group of local geologists immediately after the earthquake and the recommendations of another group of scientists appointed by the federal government.

Both groups said the area was too hazardous for large buildings. The scientists recommended it be restricted to parks and a limited number of singlefamily homes. They said the city's central business area should be moved back from the bluffs.

"I said "why?' " Hickel recalled.

Hickel had hired engineers six years earlier to study the soils in the west end of downtown. The studies had shown some areas to be weak; the earthquake bore out the prediction. But the land under his hotel went nowhere during the earthquake, and Hickel said his studies showed it was stable. He said he went public with his construction plans in an attempt to restore confidence in Anchorage's shattered downtown.

"You can't run from natural disasters, " Hickel said.

He wasn't the only landowner pressing for reconstruction in areas the geologists wanted to rule offlimits. City officials were threatened with lawsuits when the government started buying up property for the Fourth Avenue buttress.

M.R. "Muktuk" Marston was the developer of TurnagainByTheSea, the exclusive subdivision the earthquake had converted, in part, to TurnagainInTheSea.

Marston, a retired Army colonel, launched a furious assault on the geologists' recommendations against rebuilding the subdivision. "We lost enough in the earthquake, but these experts, these geologists . . . have done equal damage, " he said, according to the April 14 Anchorage Daily Times.

Marston's argument boiled down to what might be called the "lightningstrike" theory: Anchorage had just survived a major earthquake. Major earthquakes don't hit the same area twice. Therefore, Anchorage is safe.

The reasoning was wrong, but it appealed to property owners, bankers, and their natural allies, politicians.

Like Hickel, Groh said his decisions in the days following the earthquake were the result of a desire to restore confidence in Anchorage.

"My idea was you had to create some hope for the people, " Groh said. "So I created, with the mayor's permission, a reconstruction group, and we appointed a number of prominent citizens to it."

The Reconstruction Commission, chaired by Groh, included chairmen of five local banks, two state senators, the head of the chamber of commerce, and executives from the railroad, the oil industry, labor, contractors, and Yukon Office Supply. The commercial representatives on the panel vastly outnumbered the four representatives of state and federal agencies involved in the resurrection of Anchorage and the lone city planning commission member.

The commission was, if nothing else, an accurate measure of who would decide what would happen in downtown Anchorage.

The federal government was prepared to help finance downtown reconstruction but on its terms. One of those terms was that the land be stabilized by buttresses, methods of making ground more stable by removing bad soil and replacing it with stronger material. Another was what could be built on the buttressed land. The downtown movers and shakers didn't want anybody telling them what they could build or where or how. So, in the end, the city built a buttress in only one place the area just north of Fourth Avenue as part of a federal urban renewal project.

The rest of the rebuilding was financed privately and without federal restrictions.

The state helped the owners of Turnagain slide property by offering to exchange state land in another part of town for their land. But because the language of the state law authorizing the exchange allowed it, some of the owners kept their slide land. Today, its owners are continuing their fight to be allowed to build on it.

Hickel broke ground on the Captain Cook within six months of the earthquake. Over the next two decades, tall buildings went up on the other side of the graben the side that actually moved and on the edge of the bluff itself.

The more buildings go up, the harder it will be to reverse a dangerous process, Davies said.

"Suppose that our science gets better in the future, and in 50 to 60 years we can begin to better assess the probabilities, and my successor came to the thenmayor, and told him there was a 75 percent probability there will be a magnitude 8.0 earthquake in Anchorage within the next two years. The mayor at that time, if we don't reverse things, will be faced with a huge problem."

In 1982, developer Carl Brady defended his construction of Resolution Tower at the edge of the bluff.

"Buildings built properly can withstand an earthquake, " he said, "and if Resolution Tower ever does go into the inlet, it'll be in one piece."

Other engineers have echoed Brady's argument in defending other buildings on the bluff. And they may be right.

But will the people inside be in one piece?

WAITING FOR NEXT BIG ONE?

A new study still in draft form estimates that a 1964type earthquake would cause more than $400 million in damage to Anchorage today compared to the $86 million of damages in 1964.

About half the $405.8 million in contemporary damages would occur in downtown Anchorage; damage to buildings and dwellings in the unstable areas would top 50 percent of their value.

The estimates do not include damages to electrical, water and sewer systems or police and fire stations. The study, commissioned by the municipality, is by WoodwardClyde Associates and URS|Blume, a California firm.

The study assumes that an earthquake of 1964 proportions will recur within 100 to 300 years. The study says there will be only four "earthquake deaths, " but defines the term so narrowly that engineer Coles said the number is misleading.

Warnings like the ones Davies and the WoodwardClyde study make are not new.

In 1959, five years before the Good Friday earthquake, geologists Robert Miller and Ernest Dobrovolny published a slender book with a heavy title: "Superficial Geology of Anchorage and Vicinity, Alaska."

Miller and Dobrovolny dug into the earth under Anchorage and studied the ground along slopes and bluffs. They looked at earlier soil studies and read reports of damage from previous earthquakes. They tested the Bootlegger Cove clay that underlies much of the city, and found it treacherous, especially when spring thaws wet it. They found a man could start a slide at such times simply by walking along the bluff.

"Shocks, such as those associated with earthquakes, " they wrote, "will start moving material that under most conditions is stable . . . Stronger shocks may be strong enough to exceed the shear strength of dry material and cause it to move."

Their 1959 study pinpointed old "slide blocks" along Knik Arm between Chester Creek and Ship Creek, and from the port along Government Hill. The earthquake showed Miller and Dobrovolny were right.

The bluffs they suspected failed. The Bootlegger Cove clay turned to jelly.

What happens if another major earthquake occurs, and the geologists are right again? What if new fortunes, and lives, are lost?

Sharrock argues the odds. A big quake may not come again for 100 years. It may come next year, but that's unlikely.

"Nothing may happen, " he said. "Everybody takes risks . . ."

Groh's law firm recently moved to the 17th floor of a midtown tower. From his desk, he looks out on a sweeping view of downtown Anchorage. He was asked if he frequents the buildings on the bluff.

"I feel comfortable doing it, " he said, "but I never bought any property in Bootlegger Cove . . .

"Is the sky going to fall? I don't know. Those people (who say the bluffs may fail) aren't laying their money on the line. There are people here laying their money on the line saying it isn't going to happen . . . "

Hickel's office is on the second floor of the Captain Cook. What will he say if he's wrong?

"We'll just say that we did it as best as it could be done at the time, " Hickel said.

"God never made anything forever."

Anchorage Daily News librarians Sharon Palmisano and Rachel Wozniak contributed research to this story.


By Don Hunter
Anchorage Daily News