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Is Anchorage ready for another Great Alaska Earthquake?

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 26, 2014


At 1:36 p.m. on April 1, 2014, a 9.2 earthquake struck Anchorage. Five hundred and thirty people died during the four minute quake. Another 6,000 sustained serious injuries. The cranes at the Port of Anchorage fell into Knik Arm. Oil tanks ruptured and the docks were evacuated. Landslides at Point Woronzof buckled the north end of the runway at Stevens International Airport. The airport's tower still stood, but was unmanned because of structural damage. Parts of the Seward Highway and Alaska Railroad tracks sloughed into Turnagain Arm, cutting off travel south. Going north, the only way to cross Eagle River was the inbound Glenn Highway bridge. Every parking garage in downtown Anchorage had collapsed. In one, three people were reported dead and 55 were trapped. Another 26 were dead at a major hotel. Cellphone users couldn't get a dial tone. The broken streets were clogged with cars as frantic parents tried to reach their children. Some 42,000 people -- and 19,000 pets -- were homeless. Those whose homes remained intact had no gas, electricity, running water or sewer service.

The above is not entirely fantasy. The details have been extrapolated from estimates issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and maps outlining major earthquake scenarios in advance of a statewide disaster preparedness drill planned in Alaska over the next several days.

The 50th anniversary of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake will be a busy day for Kevin Spillers, the city's emergency management director. He'll be in control of the room during Operation Alaska Shield on Thursday.

The staff of the Office of Emergency Management share the Emergency Operations Center building on E Street with United Way offices and police and fire backup dispatch centers. They provide education and outreach, work on a revision of the city's emergency plan, and, several times a year, get involved with what Spillers called "smaller things, like fires that displace 25 people or more."

Earlier this month, the center's main response room sat empty, as it does most of the time.

Around the room are more than 30 computer-equipped work stations arranged in clusters. In an emergency, representatives of area hospitals will sit together in one section, public safety people in another, community service providers in another.

Color-coded vests are folded over the tops of chairs. Blue vests designate the "traffic" crew that handles damage assessment and forms what Spillers called "the common operating picture." Personnel from local utilities will wear purple.

At the main desk is a red vest for Spillers. Immediately to his right is a chair for a municipal attorney.

"They're needed for things like evacuation orders," he said.

Operation Alaska Shield will involve layers of local, state and federal agencies rehearsing what might happen in the first 24 hours following a 1964-type quake. Maps prepared for the drill designate neighborhoods without electricity or natural gas or areas requiring relocation of residents.

Specific groups are charged with feeding and housing displaced people, moving special needs individuals and seniors, urban search and rescue, medical care and animal control.

There's even a work group "to keep agencies from working at cross purposes," Spillers said.


Alaska is more vulnerable to the effects of a sustained emergency than the contiguous states, said Jeremy Zidek of the State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. "If you have a disaster in Joplin, Mo., where they had the big tornado 2011, you have aid organizations from all different directions rushing in to provide assistance," he said.

"It's different here. Alaska may have to stand on its own for at least 72 hours. Perhaps longer. In the Lower 48 they say people should have supplies on hand to get through three days after a disaster. Up here we say seven days."

Food could become an issue in the event of a long-term disruption. Ninety percent of what Alaskans consume is said to come through the Port of Anchorage, which lies between bluffs and the silt of Knik Arm.

"The port has vulnerabilities because of its location," Spillers acknowledged. Damage to the fuel facilities is a particular concern.

The exercise starts Thursday, the 50th anniversary of the 1964 earthquake, and will continue through April 7 with a focus on the port. Spillers said it will include evacuation and an amphibious landing, something that might be needed to move supplies ashore if the docks became unusable.

"Food resupply is something we look at closely," said Zidek. Estimates are that if the Port of Anchorage were closed, area stores would have no more than five days of stocks on shelves. Alternative routes might be established via the ports in Whittier, Valdez or Seward, Zidek said. "But those places also have logistic issues."

Air transport would be another option. But in 1964, the earthquake took Anchorage's main airport out of service, toppling its tower and damaging the main runway. Civilian flights used the runway on Elmendorf in the weeks that followed.

"We had a lot less airport in '64," said John Parrott, manager of Stevens International Airport. "We have three runways now. The new terminal is built to current seismic standards. We have more than one air traffic control location; if the tower were to be nonfunctional there are ways that the air traffic folks could control limited amounts of traffic.

"Of course, Mother Nature holds the ultimate cards in this. If something like '64 happened, we could be down for 30 minutes or days depending on the integrity of the runways and what's happened to the buildings."

Risk of injury to people at the airport would be a concern, he noted. At any given time there can be 10,000 people or more at the facility. "It may be the largest public gathering place in the state," he said.

If the airport were closed, the runways at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson would probably continue operations, as they did in 1964. Because of the base's importance to national defense, the Air Force has people and equipment standing by to fix any problems quickly. "Elmendorf's capacity for repairs is resident," is how Spiller, a former Marine helicopter pilot, put it.

Shipping goods from the airport in Fairbanks would also be an option, "assuming the roads are up," Parrott said. "We have a much better road system than we did 1964." Moving more goods up the Alaska Highway would be another option.


Many changes over the past 50 years could stretch resources.

"Back then people had smaller homes, fuel needs were smaller, people stocked up on food because they had to wait for ships or barges," said Zidek. "There was more subsistence hunting and fishing, even among people in the cities. Today everybody can't just go out and hunt for their needs. The population has grown by 350 percent."

At the time of statehood, five years before the earthquake, about half of everything Alaskans ate was harvested, hunted or raised within the state. Home vegetable gardens were widely cultivated and home canning was widely practiced. Population centers were amply supplied by local egg farms, ranching operations and dairies that aren't here any more.

On the other hand, Anchorage should benefit from new technology after the next quake, assuming there's power to run the devices. Cellphones, for example, not available in 1964, could be invaluable in reconnecting families and spreading information.

"What we've learned for recent earthquakes is that cell networks are very resilient," said Zidek. "They may be overwhelmed, but they're likely to be functioning."

Michelle Torres, the municipality's Emergency Programs Manager, advised people to send texts rather than try to make voice calls. "Non-essential calls often shutdown wireless phone service in major disaster and prevent 911 calls," she said. "They can also make emergency personnel unable to communicate with each other if the cellphone lines are constantly busy."

Texts help conserve bandwidth and will cue until they can be sent in quick gaps between phone calls, she said.

HAM radio operators may not play a big a role as they did in the 1964 quake when they supplied the first communication in and out of stricken areas. But they're still important. There's a special HAM room at the Emergency Operations Center, along with a galley to feed a number of workers and volunteers over a period of days.


There are about 48,000 children in the Anchorage School District. That's close to the total number of Anchorage residents in 1964. In the big quake that year Government Hill Elementary snapped in two and the top floor of West High School collapsed. No students were hurt because it was Good Friday and school was out.

The odds are 1 in 8 that the next big quake will happen during school hours. The district expects most parents would immediately try to get to the schools and pick up their children. But plans are in place for kids whose parents can't get to them.

"We will not close a building until all children are in the hands of their families or have been moved to a facility where we can take care of them for a longer period of time," said ASD Chief Operating Officer Mike Abbott.

Every school has an emergency operations plan and is "capable of managing itself as a short-term holding facility," he said. "Every school also has an alternate location within walking distance, another school or a church, in case a building is not habitable."

Twenty-two of the district's larger schools can be used as community shelters, Abbott said. "All have emergency electric generation and duel fuel boilers that can operate on diesel if gas isn't available." Emergency supplies are stored in containers kept on the premises.

The possibility exists that if the Seward Highway were closed there would be no quick way for high schoolers from Girdwood to get home. If the bridges at Eagle River went down, parents working in Anchorage might be stranded away from their children in Chugiak and the Mat-Su. But, Abbott said, no child would be sent to an empty home against his or her will.

"We'll take care of them for hours, days or months. That's a commitment not just from the school, but from the community in general."

Abbott said concerned parents could talk to the administrators of the schools for details like where their child's alternate facility is located.


Despite the size of the 1964 quake and the severe damage to parts of town, most of Anchorage came out well. "Everybody in Anchorage had a 9.2 earthquake," said UAA geology professor Kristine Crossen. "But not everybody's house fell apart. In Muldoon or Eagle River, some people had broken windows, but the houses were still habitable."

The stability of the ground on the east side of town was a major factor, she said.

The survivability of Anchorage homes is also ascribed to relatively light, springy two-by-four and plywood construction that gave with the shock. Homes in 1964 tended to be more humble than today. Most were in the form of one-story boxes and, except for places where the ground liquified and slumped out from under them, rode out the quake without much damage aside from broken dishes. Many such pre-quake homes are still seen in Turnagain, two or three blocks from where other homes were ripped apart in the tumbling mud closer to Cook Inlet.

The city has strengthened building codes since 1964. Houses are generally stronger. "Instead of just making foundations from concrete blocks, now we have rebar. They don't pull apart," Crossen said.

Much depends on zoning. Crossen notes that the north side of Fourth Avenue, which collapsed in 1964, has undergone mitigation and stabilization and that there are height restrictions on the structures that have been built there since. There are restrictions on building in certain areas prone to damage.

She seemed less comfortable with the lack of restrictions along the L Street fault or the rebuilding that has been allowed in parts of Turnagain that disintegrated in 1964.

"We can't stop plate movement," she said. "We can't stop earthquakes. But we can either do something about how we build things or where we let them be built."

She said the relocation of hospitals away from the L St. fault and Ship Creek bluff to inland sites made sense. "That was a good decision. From what we saw in the quake, it's much safer to have them in Midtown."


The biggest problem in a major emergency isn't access, fires or fallen buildings, Spillers said. "It's apathy. People don't take the time to prepare."

Emergency management personnel were unanimous in stressing the need for individuals and families to "make a plan, get a kit."

"When people are self-reliant and self-sufficient, we don't have to set up as many shelters," said Zidek. "Then we can use our energies to establish a normal flow of goods and prioritize things -- food, water, a safe place to stay, caring for the injured."

Planning includes having a pre-determined meeting point for family members and a back-up meeting place if the first one doesn't pan out. It also involves figuring out at least two different ways to get out of your house or neighborhood. That's not always possible in Anchorage where some neighborhoods have only one way in or out, a reality that troubles Spillers.

In conjunction with a family plan, Torres encouraged people to know their neighbors and be aware of disabled or elderly people who may need to be checked on.

Emergency survival kits are indispensable in the first hours or days after a disaster. They become crucial if Alaska is cut off from resupply for any period of time.

"There are several suggested kits out there," said Zidek. "They don't have to cost a lot of money and you can put them together over time. We have a 12-week program for that on our website ("

Zidek listed the basics of such a kit. "Enough food for each member of the family for a week and one gallon of water per person per day." If stored water runs out, ordinary bleach can be used to decontaminate such water as you can collect. (Two drops per quart, 8 drops per gallon, 1/2 teaspoon per five gallons. Wait 15 minutes after adding the bleach. Torres writes the formula on her bleach bottles with a Magic Marker, "Because I can never remember it.")

Other items noted by Zidek include a flashlight, first aid kit and a wind-up or battery operated radio; emergency broadcasts will be issued over KFQD, 750 AM. And cash is a good idea. "Do you think debit card machines will be working when there's no power?" Torres asked.

People should also have necessary prescriptions, extra diabetic supplies and other medical items they may need.

"Ideally, most people will be able to stay in their homes," Zidek said. Alaska residents, even in Anchorage, may be particularly well-prepared to stay in place. Warm clothing, backup power and woodstoves or other safe alternative indoor heat sources are not uncommon here.

And many have a family pantry that, in the Lower 48, might be taken for a survivalist's hoard. At least that's what the emergency people are hoping.

"When we say there are between three and five days of food supplies on store shelves, that doesn't account for what people have in their homes," Zidek said. "We'd expect that a number of people would have extra food that they could share and a place where friends and family could stay.

"Going to a shelter should be the last resort."

"One thing we saw in 1964 was that the community threw itself into helping the neighbors who were most affected," Zidek said. "We're pretty sure that would happen again."


The biggest problem in a major emergency isn't access, fires or fallen buildings, Kevin Spillers said. "It's apathy. People don't take the time to prepare."

Emergency management personnel interviewed for this article were unanimous in stressing the need for individuals and families to "Make a plan, get a kit."

Ideas for emergency survival kits are available online. Go to Many sites tell you to have three days of supplies. Officials in Alaska say residents should have at least seven days.

Some basics include:

One gallon of water per day for every person in the household

First aid kit

Battery or crank-operated radio and flashlight

Prepared food that doesn't need to be cooked

Dried or packaged food that doesn't need refrigeration

Extra clothing and blankets

A week's worth of prescriptions, medication and medical supplies for those who depend on them

In addition to having survival supplies, families should have an emergency plan that includes two ways to leave their neighborhood and locations away from their homes where they can rendezvous or leave messages.

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