• Half a century after the ‘64 earthquake, Homer joins statewide memorial with disaster preparedness drill
By Hannah Heimbuch
On a late March evening in 1964, a 9.2 magnitude earthquake rocked Alaska. The most powerful quake in North American recorded history, the massive tectonic shift claimed lives, altered landscape and broke records. Fifty years later, Alaska is commemorating the historic event with Alaska Shield 2014 and the Great Alaska ShakeOut.
Communities around the state, including Homer, are running drills and testing their skills when it comes to disaster preparedness.
Should a major natural disaster or other crisis strike Homer, it would be up to Homer Volunteer Fire Chief Robert Painter to head-up response efforts. Come March 27, he will lead Homer’s emergency personnel in a two-day exercise.
“A table-top exercise is a small scale opportunity for people – in this case the city’s Incident Management Team made up of department directors and/or their alternates – to practice in a non-threatening atmosphere,” Painter said.
They’re getting a chance to put into play the skills and protocols demanded by a large scale disaster or major event, he said. This means managing an emergency operations command center, preparing the community to participate in disaster relief, and maintaining communications throughout a crisis scenario.
In Homer, the drill will start Thursday, March 27 with a tsunami siren test at 10:15 a.m., and run through exercises and skills until 5 p.m. that day. The team will continue to work through most of the day on Friday.
The lengthy drill offers more opportunity for skill building than simply memorizing a protocol.
“The City of Homer is attempting to better prepare our own staff and leadership to ensure that there will be some level of organization to rely upon even during a disaster,” Painter said. “The more we train and exercise, the better prepared we will be when the event happens, whether it’s a large fire, earthquake, long-term power outage, etc.”
Painter uses the term “when” and not “if,” common language in disaster preparedness. As history points out, at some point, crisis happens everywhere.
Alaska in particular needs to be prepared to face sudden disaster, he said, considering its geography and often harsh climate.
“Over the years we’ve seen the effects of floods washing out bridges to the north, isolating us for several days to more than a week,” Painter said. “We’ve had an avalanche close the road to Anchorage for more than a week, and we’ve seen wild fire cut off parts of the Peninsula.”
A disaster today has the potential to be much more damaging than in 1964, Painter said, considering the increased population and infrastructure Alaska has now.
“Much of the transportation infrastructure such as bridges and roadways and runways would not be usable until inspected for safety,” he said. “It could be expected that utilities such as water, sewer, electric and gas would be damaged and unusable until repaired.”
Buildings could become uninhabitable, major land shifts could occur causing flooding or other instability, and the threat of tsunami – though lesser in Kachemak Bay compared to other, more exposed coastline – are all significant concerns.
While other parts of the country are cautioned to stockpile 72 hours worth of food and water supplies, he said, it’s recommended that Alaskans have enough to last at least a week.
“We know from past experience that help may not be readily available from outside the state,” Painter said. “Fortunately, being prepared for one type of emergency makes us better prepared for any type of emergency.”
That kind of community preparedness puts less pressure on first responders in the event of a large-scale emergency, he said.
While Alaska Shield 2014 gives professional departments, organizations and municipalities a chance to exercise safety skills, there are many opportunities for other parts of the public to practice as well.
“The Great Alaska Shakeout will occur on March 27th at 1:36 p.m.,” Painter said — the time and date of the massive earthquake 50 years ago. “Sirens will sound as well as emergency alerts around the state signaling the event. At this time participants are expected to drop, cover, and hold-on as they would in a large earthquake.”
Considering its extreme magnitude, the loss of life during the 1964 earthquake was low, particularly compared to the devastating quakes and resultant tsunamis seen in places like Japan and Haiti in recent years.
The Good Friday quake claimed 131 lives in the Pacific Northwest, and wreaked havoc on roadways and structures. In Homer, the damage was not as severe as other locations — like Valdez and Seward — that suffered heavy damage.
According to the Alaska Earthquake Information Center, not only were aftershocks significant around the state, the effects of the 1964 earthquake were global.
“In addition to damage in the epicentral region immediately following the quake, long period seismic waves traveled around the earth for several weeks,” an AEIC report states. “Basically the whole earth vibrated (rang) like a church bell during this time. States as far away as Texas and Florida were affected with vertical motions of up to 5 to 10 cm.”
In Homer, the Good Friday earthquake caused much of the coastal land, including the Homer Spit, to drop up to 8 feet in places, depending on which source is consulted. There was major damage to the Homer harbor, and fissures along the Homer bluffs.
On the Kenai Peninsula, agencies participating in Alaska Shield 2014 or the Great Alaska ShakeOut include city departments, hospitals, public schools, Red Cross, Certified Emergency Response Team members, military units, boroughs, state agencies, port and harbor personnel, HEA, the Coast Guard, Enstar, Homer Public Library, the State Division of Homeland Security, the Alaska State Troopers, police departments, as well as individuals.
Many city employees have roles in the city’s disaster protocols, Painter said. In his absence, the Homer Chief of Police would head up disaster response operations.
“The City Manager is tasked with running the city, even in time of disaster, and the elected officials of the city have emergency roles as well,” Painter said. “The mayor is responsible for declaring a local disaster and authorizing the city to request additional assistance from the Borough.”
For more information on the Great Alaska ShakeOut or to register to participate, visit shakeout.org/alaska/.
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