The November earthquake and its psychological impacts

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. However, when the catastrophic magnitude 9.2 earthquake struck on Good Friday in 1964, I was a young child living in Pittsburgh. Every day since Anchorage’s 7.0 earthquake, I’ve thanked my lucky stars I was nowhere near the state for the great 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 terrains on the planet.

I’ve been thinking about what mental and physical changes I experienced beginning at 8:29 a.m. on Nov. 30, 2018, when the 7.0 earthquake struck. Within the inner recesses of the mind, in its substrata, a major transition occurred — what I can only describe as a kind of cognitive liquefaction.

Alone in my small, one-story ranch house on very flat ground, I was sitting at my laptop working when the entire structure jerked and swayed, wall to wall. The power instantly went out. My coffee sloshed completely out of the cup and onto the floor.

In that harrowing moment, my rational faculties went slip-sliding away, and my brain — as I have tried describing it — turned into a glob of goo. And when that happened, another part surfaced, some long-hidden, primal instincts temporarily took control.

My 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. I called anybody I could think of who might come over, crying through very jumbled words. The 7.0 quake had already unleashed 90 percent of the total energy, a fact later learned from the hard-working seismologists — and something I frequently remind myself about.

Within 15 minutes after the 7.0 earthquake, a male friend who happened to be in his car 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 house was still standing. I gazed up at him, hugged him, and then in my desperate, semi-delirious state, practically strangled him.

A reluctant confession from the more primitive part of the brain: It was 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 admitted — men, too. All night long, I sat in a chair, close to the front door, fully clothed, wrapped in a blanket, with my car keys, winter coat, boots, hat, gloves and fully-charged cellphone.

To help counter my fears, I took my deceased mother’s blue rosary out of its small storage box and kept it on my lap. This was definitely not my rational self speaking.

For days, my legs felt as if I had been on a Bering Sea crab boat; it was hard to stay balanced. I jumped with every loud or unexpected sound I heard, every creak or vibration, whether it came from a refrigerator ice maker, wind rattling a vent, a freight truck rumbling down Lake Otis Parkway, the furnace kicking on — even the bleep from an incoming text message would set me off.

In my quest to relieve some of the stress, it has helped to review the history of North America’s most powerful earthquake.

In the aftermath of the epic 9.2 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 its 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 was estimated to be the 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 the Good Friday quake.

USGS’s final report, Professional Paper 546, “The Alaska earthquake, March 27, 1964: lessons and conclusions” stated that the earthquake generated more scientific study from all scientific disciplines than any single previous national disaster in U.S. history up until that time.

Six hundred miles of fault ruptured at once and moved as far as 60 feet, releasing about 500 years of stress buildup.

More than 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 more than six feet. Seward, Valdez and Chenega — to name a few locations — were decimated. Some areas near Kodiak were permanently raised by 30 feet, and more than 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 1 million gallons of jet fuel spilled at the Anchorage airport. The film showed the one-year-old J.C. Penney store in downtown Anchorage, demolished. Slabs of falling concrete killed two people.

Another important fact must be noted: I am done with aftershocks.

Anchorage residents, as the Anchorage Daily News has reported, still suffer from anxiety. The 7.0 quake’s epicenter was too close 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 7.0 earthquake 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 Alaska and food security.

We are tallying how many water jugs we have, 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 as to whose house will be “earthquake central.”

Indeed, I have made a conscientious effort to suppress the emotional outbursts, the fears and to focus more rationally on what I 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 expected rational 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.”

The 7.0 earthquake has also reminded me — or maybe emotionally pummeled me — into remembering what is real. This is the Earth. The Earth and its powerful forces are real. Of course, you more fully comprehend these titanic geophysical changes when you live through them. 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 them being taken away.

The fact is, according to the Alaska Earthquake Center, more than 55,000 Alaska earthquakes were recorded 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 stayed put and rebuilt.

Geologists have done remarkable work in the past 50 years to better understand tectonic plates. But with improved models, better instrumentation and satellite observations, many mysteries remain to ignite our imaginations.

Our precious planet, forever in motion, commands utmost respect and rapt attention if we are to read its messages. Maybe what we are each called to do, in whatever quiet and calm we can muster, is to listen to the Earth around us more closely. Listening also involves studying and learning.

It is beyond our capability to predict the next big geological event. I will be better prepared and a little less anxious, perhaps. But since the 7.0 earthquake, I’ve decided to keep my mother’s prayer beads out in the open, on the mantle, where I can easily grab them when the Earth rumbles and ruptures again.

Kathleen Tarr, a longtime Alaskan, lives in Anchorage and is the author of “We Are All Poets Here.”

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