AD Main Menu

Sparks as East Coast storm Sandy collides with Alaska history

Craig Medred
NOAA photo

Sitting in a strangely still office on the Anchorage Hillside Monday night toiling over a story about a mountaineer from a century ago while Mother Nature beat up the eastern U.S. coast, it was hard to ignore what a small, strange planet Earth has become circa 2012. Climber Belmore Browne, a man of the world in 1912, could never have imagined. Born in New York, trained at the Académie Julian in Paris, who came north to Alaska on a grand adventure when this land was almost as remote as space is today.

Browne was in his day a little like Burt Rutan and SpaceShipOne in our era. Rutan broke a barrier 2004. Browne sought to break another barrier, becoming the first to reach the summit of Mount McKinley. And between the eras of the two men, one of the greatest barriers to humankind -- the communication barrier -- fell almost unnoticed. Did anyone even notice when it was crossed.

I can get on my phone today and talk to someone on the other side of the globe as easily as I can call my neighbor. And I can flick a few keys on my computer while writing a story about Browne and watch video of the storm unfolding on the other side of the continent as if it the maelstrom were outside my window. Lordy how things have changed.

When climber Belmore Browne came here 100 years ago, he was largely out of touch with anyone for 8 months. The then-territory of Alaska had only a few years earlier been connected to Seattle by telegraph, which allowed electronic communications in dots and dashes. The language of the telegraph was called "Morse Code." Some now believe the code, which was once a mainstay of global communication for all nationalities, is on its way to becoming an extinct language.

But not even the dots and dashes that could type out stories 100 years ago existed once Browne left the port of Seward at the head of Resurrection Bay on the Iditarod Trail. The trail was then a well-traveled byway, better maintained in some respects than much of the Iditarod National Historic Trail is today. But communications were by mail and word of mouth, and by the time Browne got to Susitna Station in the Susitna Valley just north of Anchorage in 1912, even that pretty much ended.

Once he and his expedition turned their dog teams off the trail there and headed north up the frozen Susitna River, they were unlikely to meet anyone to whom they could hand a letter to take back to the Iditarod Trail or ask to carry a word to report their progress. Eighty miles up the river they found the a few empty structures in what is now called Talkeetna. Things are a lot different today.

Someone turning up the frozen Susitna at Su Station these days is likely to drive into a thundering horde of snowmachines headed from Susitna Landing down the river and spreading out into the country north to Skwentna. The Big Lake trail near the old steamboat station would be bringing traffic from near the doorstep of the home of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on Lake Lucille in Wasilla. Palin is now a national political celebrity, and everyone knows all about her and the Palinworld she inhabits, or at least they think they do thanks to the Internet.

The Internet has put the world at our fingertips. It is a wonderful thing when it is not an awful thing. It both connects and disconnects us.

Watching Sandy from the Hillside, it was hard to avoid thinking it all seemed a little silly. Winds to 100 mph rake the homes here with some regularity. Longtime residents are so accustomed, they don't even really worry about storms of less magnitude. And heavy rain, well, September here was torrential along with windy and it went on long enough that even those who've lived here for years tired of it.

The winds seemed to be howling at 85 mph every day and the streets ran like rivers, but we're sort of used to it. And so much of life is relative. You come to accept as normal the world around you no matter what its normal.

A friend who grew up on the East Coast reminded me of that when I walked up to his house that evening to see how his knee was doing. He'd just had surgery and was hanging around the house grumpy because he couldn't get out to hike. He'd been on the phone, too, talking to relatives still back on the other side of the country more than 3,000 miles away. His sister has a studio in New York City.

We talked a bit about the weather.

"Better here than there," he said. It was a prescient observation. We're not only used to wind and hurricane-forced winds on the Anchorage Hillisde; we're prepared for them and nature has adapted to them. In the forest on most of the Hillside now, the weak trees have already fallen, long ago flattened by winds. Witness how different it when heavy winds lashed the Anchorage Bowl earlier this year. Tens of thousands were left without power. Damages, which are still being totalled, went into the millions of dollars.

People unfamiliar with winds up over 70 mph don't know how to prepare. Hint: Take your deck furniture indoors. The wind will pick it up and toss it around. If you are lucky, it will merely take out the rails on your deck and not injure someone. And it is the same for anything that isn't tied down. My neighbors have had boats tossed by the wind, fifth-wheel campers tossed by the wind; pickup campers ripped out of the beds of pickups by the wind. And they have learned how to deal with this.

One, at any report of strong winds, now parks his recreational vehicle sideways in the lee of his house. Others lash their expensive recreational toys to the ground. And still, when it gets really bad, everyone knows to stay indoors because there's still no telling what could be blowing around outside: Tree limbs, garbage cans, parts of the roof ripped off someone's house.

When I got to thinking about that, it was pretty scary to think of what it was like when Sandy hit densely-packed urban neighborhoods on the East Coast, some of which probably weren't designed for hurricane force winds either. It was pretty obvious someone was going to end up dead, and they did. It's equally obvious the damage was going to climb into the billions.

One could only hope that "hurricane clips" on rafters are part of building codes everywhere now.

A wind gust here of 79 mph is no big thing. We've gone over 110 mph. A wind gust of 79 mph at JFK International Airport in New York is a different matter. Mother Nature is not to be taken for granted. Alaskans, though the vast majority of them now live comfortable urban lives, still probably have a better sense of that than people on the East Coast. As the neighbor said, "Better here than there."

But there's not much we can do to change that.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com