Saturday, May 20, 2017

Alaska And Radio History Dramatically Fused: 99% Invisible's Show On Gene Chance

The Alaska Press Club tweeted a link to 99% Invisible's show about Gene Chance and the Alaska earthquake of 1964.   For good reason.  This is a great show.  Partly, of course, because it's about one of the most important events in our state history.  But it's also a story about the power of radio.

Just click the link and listen.  (I don't see a way to embed this here.)

Screen Shot from 99% Invisible

I'd note that while this show is focused on Anchorage, but the earthquake was centered 75 miles away and most of the deaths were due to tsunamis that followed.  Accounts I find online vary and don't identify Anchorage deaths which were low because no tsunamis hit Anchorage.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) splits the total deaths and tsunami deaths.
The quake took 131 lives and caused $350-500 million in property damage (One hundred twenty-two of the deaths were attributed to the tsunami.) The area of the damage zone (50,000 square miles) and the duration of the quake (3 to 4 minutes) were extraordinary.
(You might also note that NOAA says it lasted 3-4 minutes while the 99% Invisible story says 5 minutes.)

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Earthquake Center splits between the Alaska and Outside deaths:
"The number of deaths from the earthquake totalled 131; 115 in Alaska and 16 in Oregon and California. The death toll was extrememly small for a quake of this magnitude due to low population density, the time of day and the fact that it was a holiday, and the type of material used to construct many buildings (wood)."
For another first hand account, see Anchorage cartoonist Peter Dunlap-Shoal's 2007 animated video which recreates his experience as a five year old when the earthquake struck.

For a lot of pictures of the earthquake, see this USGS site.


  1. So Peter and I are 5 years apart in age, then. It was funny reciting the words of the name of the show they were watching on television. Sharp memories of a time I remember -- after the intitial terror and running to the street -- of enjoying, really.

    My brothers and I all tried to see who could remain standing as birch trees whipped back and forth, almost touching the ground in their arcs; of cars bouncing where they were parked; of drivers having to pull to a stop; of the frozen winter-ground moaning and cracking under our feet as if alive with pain.

    It also gave me my first, visceral understanding of the immediacy with which children deal with the world -- that we kids took it all as a new 'normal' in a way. After the wonder and fear of watching streets ripple in stormy waves, we got back to the what-next.

    We got out of school, close family friends moved in with us as we had a big fireplace. We set up honey-buckets and melted snow for drinking water. We got together with neighbours, my father kept his church open and held services. People needed that sort of thing.

    The snow then was pretty deep. We had play to do. Peter, unfortunately, lived in an area that was hit in the way many 'outside' imagined was the entire city given news accounts that trickled out -- don't remember Genie's show. Must have heard it, I imagine.

    We would hear of looting and martial law being declared (was it? or wasn't it?, but looting wasn't going on). I remember hearing radio accounts telling us military were posted in certain areas and we were to stay away -- that you would be shot. Yeah, that's what I remember.

    The fallout from that day was great for a kid's ego. When we drove to Minnesota that summer to see relations as we did every-other-year, we took our slides and snaps and held pop-up town meetings to share what had happened. We were at that 'center of attention' and I remember so clearly kids my age refusing to believe I had 'lived through that.'

    It was weird to be told I couldn't have been there. And it was stranger to know I couldn't 'prove it' to them other than my brothers saying they were there, too.

    And yes, like the former city mayor, I know what he means as he recalls knowing the very ground upon which we stand isn't certain. I also know that strange bond that ties those of us who can say 'we were there'. It set a sharp line in Anchorage history for the before and after. It was only 5 years and Big Oil hit and the state changed forever.

    It reminds me now, sitting in London, of another of the many ways one cannot unlive one's past even having left it behind.

    1. Jacob, thanks for adding your story. I love how the internet allows what in the past would have been private conversations (if had at all) to be a repository for the world to learn about events - like the Alaska Earthquake.

  2. Great information. Thank you for sharing.


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