• 2014 SBC

By Patrick M. Coullahan, P.E., PMP, F.SAME and Allan D. Lucht, P.E., M.SAME

Good Friday, 1964: The Great Alaskan Earthquake

By Patrick M. Coullahan, P.E., PMP, F.SAME and Allan D. Lucht, P.E., M.SAME

There have been instances throughout recent history that generations can point to and say “I remember exactly what I was doing at that moment.” Most Americans have the tragic events of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 imprinted on their memory. Members of the aptly named “Greatest Generation” always recalled the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 6, 1941. For others there was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Nov. 22, 1963, and the NASA Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster on Jan. 28, 1986. People in New Orleans keenly remember when Hurricane Katrina changed their world, as did those at the Jersey Shore during Superstorm Sandy. For some 125,000 Alaskans, it is another memory they vividly recall on March 27, 1964: the 9.2 Magnitude earthquake that struck Alaska on Good Friday. Perhaps not many in the Lower 48 really know about the profound immediate and ultimately lasting impacts this event had on America’s 49th state and the military and civilian engineering and construction communities, and the people of Alaska.

Even two decades after this disastrous earthquake struck the military and civilian communities in Alaska it was still apparent there were many people so profoundly impacted that it was among the first discussions an Alaskan newcomer or “Cheechacko” in local lingo, would usually have with a long-time resident, or “Sourdough”, as locals were categorized. The Sourdoughs would recount harrowing stories of the widely varied earthquake, which lasted several minutes and was followed by the earth throbbing with aftershocks every 50 minutes or so for an extended period. Hearing these accounts was valuable mentorship for any newcomer in adjusting to the experiences of life in Alaska.

As the 50th anniversary of the Great Alaskan Earthquake nears, while the general understanding of this historic disaster among the Alaskan populace, now numbering over 600,000, is certainly less universal, one can still find a Sourdough who lived through the earthquake willing to share their experiences during and after—and how their perspective on life changed that day and in the weeks after. This is their story.

A Record Quake

March 27, 1964: It was a typical late afternoon in Alaska. Many in Anchorage, Valdez, Kodiak and Seward were honoring Good Friday and anticipating a pleasant Easter Sunday. At 5:36 p.m., that all changed. An enormously powerful 9.2 Magnitude earthquake struck in Prince William Sound. Its epicenter was 6-mi east of the entrance to the College Fjord, 78-mi east of Anchorage and at a 15-mi depth, making it the second largest earthquake in recorded history behind the 9.5 Magnitude earthquake that struck Chile in 1960. The Alaskan quake was felt for more than four minutes in an area nearly twice the size of Texas, although those who lived through it often felt it lasted much longer. On the first day alone, there were 11 aftershocks of 6.0 Magnitude or greater. Over the ensuing three weeks, nine more aftershocks of that magnitude were felt and smaller aftershocks resonated throughout the next year. Losses and damage from the earthquake and resulting tsunami were heavy. The quake was felt throughout the entire state.

There was amazement and disbelief as to what one was witnessing during and immediately after the initial earthquake. Damages were immense. Donald Fall, a lineman for the Anchorage Municipal Light and Power at the time, said he witnessed so many unusual things first hand at one time that it is was too difficult to catalog and put to words. He was in the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in the Spenard area of Anchorage that fateful day as his wife Ann was home with their two young children. He described that ground wave after ground wave of 3-ft to 4 f-ft in height rolled through the store. All shelving items were disgorged, the suspended ceiling started falling, and cars in the parking lot moved wildly about. As a lineman he noted watching the electrical distribution poles and lines as they slapped madly about. One woman tried to stand but kept getting knocked to the ground, and he had to hold onto her so she wouldn’t be slammed into the ground repeatedly. “It seemed like forever” is a common theme recollected by those who lived through it.

As Don headed home to his family there was quite a bit of snow still on the ground. To this day he remembers all of dogs he saw were sitting on the very tops of the snow piles. His wife said all of the glass in their house broke and she had to restrain the refrigerator from toppling over onto her children. When Don made it home Ann recounted she had never seen him so worried and ashen. He asked if the kids and she were okay, and when she said yes, his sense of duty as a lineman kicked in and he announced “I’ve got to get back to town, buildings are falling all over Anchorage.” For several months after that Don and the crews of the Anchorage Municipal Light and Power worked 12-hour days six days of the week, and one 8-hour day.

Beverly and Leo Walsh experienced the quake first-hand in Anchorage as well—Beverly was at the Spenard Piggly Wiggly picking up Easter Lamb and Mint Jelly when the world began shaking. She managed to make it to her house in the Turnagain area where she was met by her husband carrying sleeping bags and food and saying their seven children were safe. It was then that the enormity of the quake damages hit her. She saw blue sky where there used to be homes. She was impacted even more when she glanced down into a huge hole near her house, when Leo and her heard a child standing on a car down deep inside the hole say: “Hi Mr. Walsh, how’s the weather up there?” That area today is known as “Earthquake Park.”


Turnagain residential area damage.

Heavy equipment, in general, was very limited in Alaska at the time. Some of the newer equipment was hydraulic, but there was a percentage that was still cable operated. Everything that was available was pressed into service. In the outlying areas, many people had pre-war and immediately post-war cable operated equipment. Digging was done with power shovels that were cable operated. A lot of small cranes and hoisting equipment still used cable systems. The first small hydraulic back hoes such as the precursor of the Case 580 were developed in the late 1940s and through the 1950s. As John Magee, F.SAME recalls, scrapers (cans) pulled by crawler tractors with cable operating systems were pre-war and became hydraulic by around late 1950s. John remembers the first D8 Cat he ran was a slidebar 8, with cable running overhead from a winch on the back of the tractor to the blade. As one could imagine, cable machinery was difficult and cumbersome to operate and would wear the operator out by the end of a shift. Factoring that shift into seven days a week of long workdays created significant stress for operators and workers to get systems back to normal.


Air Force truck and dozer used during earthquake recovery.

While power was restored relatively quickly, the Municipal Light and Power Ship Creek Power Plant, which used natural gas as the primary fuel to run the turbine generators, had its supply line severed spewing natural gas like a geyser into the air. Fortunately it did not ignite. The plant was able to go the backup system of fuel oil for powering the generators. Both the Elmendorf AFB and Fort Richardson power plants were knocked out of service as the coal storage systems within toppled. Only one substation in the city, located at the corner of C Street and 4th Avenue, failed entirely, as the earth slipped away taking the substation with it.

Don Fall had great admiration for the Municipal Light and Power Superintendent at the time, Bob Wellman. Wellman laid out the recovery game plan with everything in his head to establish distribution and repair priorities. His knowledge of the system was so remarkable they began successfully reenergizing substations one by one, and within two days power was beginning to be distributed. Crews worked and slept in their trucks, and safely emerged victorious. They encountered poles completely sheared at the base, transformers hopping off their hooks suspended by power lines, and impassable roads. They had to go building by building to reenergize them and often met Alaska National Guard troops who happened to be in town for training and were pressed into immediate service guarding the community from any looting.


Air Force truck and dozer used during earthquake recovery.

As aftershocks hit Don witnessed workers on scaffolding outside a 14-story building quickly scrambling inside to escape being flung to certain death below. He also remembers his crew needed to wade through a sea of floating fuel at the Port of Anchorage and remarked how lucky the city was in that it did become engulfed in a conflagration. The Air Force Base fire department had been minimizing the risk of fire by foaming the area so workers and others could repair dock equipment and adjacent ruptured systems. These accounts can be multiplied thousands of times over by all Alaskans who lived through it.

The Military's Role

Immediately following the earthquake on that memorable afternoon of March 27, 1964, the military in Alaska assumed a prominent role in search and recovery operations through operation “Helping Hand.” Lt. Gen. Raymond J. Reeves, USAF, Commander in Chief, Alaska, made an initial report to the Department of Defense through the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Known demographics of the quake’s magnitude and location were provided as well as reports of significant damage with some injury and causalities within the communities of Anchorage, Seward, Valdez, Cordova, Kodiak and Kenai.

Long haul communication lines were the first major infrastructure systems reestablished. Within 90 minutes, 95 percent of both Fort Richardson’s and Elmendorf’s local communications were restored, albeit to a limited degree. On the commercial side, Alaska Communications was passing emergency and Civil Defense telephone traffic to other states. Telephone communications were restored to Anchorage within two hours following the quake. Calls for assistance began pouring into the Alaska Command operations center. Anchorage received almost immediate assistance but those further out had to rely on airlift, which was delayed by a combination of bad weather and insufficient airfield status of infrastructure on the receiving end. 

At the first light of dawn on the March 28, 17 Provider (C-123) transports departed Elmendorf Airfield laden with supplies and equipment for the ravaged earthquake and tidal communities of Seward, Valdez and Kodiak. This flying operation was repeated for the next 21 days and provided over 18,000-T of cargo to the hardest hit communities. The Military Air Transport Service alone hauled over 13,000-T of cargo and clocked more than 1,300 hours of flying time for “Helping Hand”. Three Stratolifter (C-135) trips air evacuated 58 patients from the Elmendorf hospital all the way down to Travis AFB, Calif. 

During two weeks following the disaster, U.S. Army Alaska light aircraft flew 589 hours on 556 sorties for disaster relief and passenger transport—primarily using Shawnee (CH-21) helicopters and Otter (U1A) fixed wing aircraft. Due to the loss of communications facilities, early damage assessments of Anchorage and outlying areas could not be made. The damage was so widespread the whole picture could not be captured into proper perspective. Military reconnaissance aircraft were employed to photograph and film damaged areas, shooting 2,400 aerial negatives and aerial photographing more than 4,200-ft of film. 

By the following Tuesday, March 31, four water purification units had been flown in from the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Wash., and strategically placed within Anchorage. The water supply effort lasted until Sunday, April 5, when the city system had mostly been restored. Fort Richardson established four field mess halls on base and in Anchorage. The mission: to feed all comers. 

The Good Friday Earthquake wreaked havoc on the island of Kodiak. Eleven residents and three Navy dependents died. More than 100 homes, 45 fishing boats, and eight industrial and 45 commercial structures were destroyed by seismic waves. The ground surrounding Naval Air Station Kodiak dropped 5.5-ft, damaging several structures to include hangars, docks, runways and major warehouses. Within four hours, a 150-man Seabee Disaster Recovery Team was en route to provide recovery assistance. Assigned military personnel to Kodiak stabilized the base and began providing immediate local assistance for security, transportation, food, water and medical assistance. 

Seward, a major Alaskan port and rail terminus was devastated by earthquake, seismic waves and fire all but scouring the harbor from the face of the Earth. The only major transportation facility in usable condition was an air strip. This became the community’s life line, as the 140-mi Seward Highway from Anchorage suffered extensive damage and dropped nearly 20-ft to below mean sea level in the area south of Girdwood. There were several areas blocked from landslides and the loss of 17 highway bridges. The following morning, 139 soldiers of Company A, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry, were airlifted by Provider transports to provide search and recovery operations in Seward. In the meantime, elements of the 562 Engineer Combat Company, complete with two bulldozers and Bailey Bridge components, began their trip to Seward later in the evening clearing roads, filling fissures and forging waterways where bridges had failed. The unit had cleared a path to Girdwood when the urgency of their mission changed because of the impassable area that dropped 20-ft in elevation. They were to concentrate evacuating residents of the Girdwood area and forego the impossible attempt to reach Seward. 

Longtime Sourdough Pete Hardcastle (now a Senior Engineering Geologist): “I was a youngster in Seward during the quake and it was an exciting time. I sat out in our side yard at Iron and Bear Drive and watched the tsunamis coming by our house 400-ft away. I really didn't know what a tsunami was then, and apparently most other people didn't either. The big things in Seward were the landslides, the waves and the fires.”  

Pete recounted that the Texaco Tank Farm tanks burned (vented) as they were designed to, but did not collapse as the ground underneath was stable. The tanks vented for several days before burning all their fuel. Nobody tried to extinguish them. The ground slid out from under the Standard Oil Tank Farm severely and over 20 large tanks collapsed. He remembers that “boats washed up at the head of the bay by a second wave—a very impressive wave about 40-ft high—with all the larger boats from the small boat harbor on top. The big spruce trees broke like match sticks when they were hit. The entire bay behind the wave appeared to be on fire from the fuel from the Standard Oil Tank Farm.”  


The coastal city of Seward lies in wreckage.


Seward suffered seismic wave damage and a large fire in its fuel storage.

Overall, Valdez suffered the most significant damage from earthquake, seismic waves and fire. Valdez was built on unconsolidated deltaic sands and gravels, which are extremely unstable in an earthquake. The sediments on the water front liquefied, causing a large section of the delta (approximately 4,000-ft long by 600-ft wide) to slump into Port Valdez. This slump displaced a large volume of water and created a local tsunami destroying most of the waterfront. Portions of the waterfront that remained standing burned due to rupturing of several large fuel tanks.  

The task for search and recovery was assigned to the U.S. Army Alaska Yukon Command and Fort Wainwright. Less than three hours after the devastating event, five plane loads of soldiers from B Company, 1st Battalion, 47th Infantry were on their way from Fort. Wainwright to Gulkana where they would complete the trip to Valdez by helicopter as it was doubtful fixed-wing airfield assets were up and running in Valdez. There were three known dead and 32 missing persons (from the waterfront) in Valdez. The mission at hand became establishment of shelters for residents to survive until they could be evacuated. All but 40 men and five women were evacuated by March 28. These 45 residents stayed to assist the military personnel with search, rescue, salvage and eventual closure of Valdez. The city was too devastated to repair and obviously at a highly susceptible earthquake location. Valdez today is relocated and rebuilt 5-mi from its original location on higher and much more stable ground where it serves importantly in its new location as the terminus of The Alaska Pipeline System. 

Another community was not as fortunate. The village of Chenega was destroyed by a 27-ft seismic wave that killed 23 of the 68 people who lived there. The survivors managed to escape the wave by climbing to higher ground. Crushing tsunamis severely affected Whittier, Seward, Kodiak and other Alaskan communities, as well as people and property in British Columbia, Oregon, California, even Hawaii, and Japan. The Tsunami Warning Systems we have today did not exist, nor were there tsunami evacuation routes in these Alaskan towns the way other vulnerable cities may have had at the time. The types of emergency preparedness systems and processes are so critical when considering what happened in southern Alaska 50 years ago. 

Lessons from History

What Beverly Walsh remembers most about the response and recovery from the Great Alaskan Earthquake is as important today as it was then: “the thing was, people helped each other, the Alaskan spirit.” The first thing Beverly shared when discussing the events of the fateful day 50 years ago was The Military Engineer magazine dated July-August 1964. In it, the Good Friday Earthquake was covered through four articles: 

  • “Effects, Reaction, and Recovery” by Col. Kenneth T. Sawyer, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • “Operation Helping Hand” by Capt. George K. Weldon, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • “Coast and Geodetic Surveys of Earthquake Effects” by Rear Adm. H. Arnold Karo, Director, Coast and Geodetic Survey
  • “Navy Operations at Kodiak” by Cdr. Alfred Stroh Jr., Civil Engineer Corps, United States Navy

The July-August 1964 issue of The Military Engineer included an extensive report on the Great Alaskan Earthquake.

The amount of detail provided to the SAME membership in those four articles was astounding and is as relevant today as back then. The knowledge gained and the level of response by the military was, by all accounts, tremendous The impacts were just beginning to be understood at that time: questioning why one building failed and another did not in terms of design, construction, and geology; how subsidence impacted various jetty heights and the ground rising impacted ability of fishing fleets to set sail at low tide; and how everyone come together to determine why these and other things happened.  

Former Alaska District Corps of Engineers leader during World War II, the late Brig. Gen. Benjamin B. Talley, F.SAME, was by 1964 retired from the Army and working as a consultant for the Metcalf + Eddy engineering firm. He participated in the restoration of Alaska following the great earthquake. Metcalf + Eddy assembled a team of particularly qualified engineers, peaking at about 50 under B.B. Talley’s supervision, and were credited with performing exceptionally well, and making a significant contribution to the overall earthquake restoration effort. The often successful transition of retired military engineers into the private sector world certainly was enhanced in stature because of his leadership. 


There was extensive damage near the USACE Alaska District complex on Elmendorf and Bluff Road (later renamed Talley Road) needed extensive repairs.

Ted Trueblood, F.SAME, recounted his experiences following the earthquake as follows: “I grew up in Anchorage and was in the last class to graduate from West High School when it still had two floors. Wracking by the earthquake demolished the second floor classrooms; but they roofed over the remainder and it is still in use. I was in my freshman year at MIT, so I heard about the earthquake from the radio—very scary. I landed a job with the Corps of Engineers Alaska District and worked the whole summer, mostly on earthquake repairs; big hours and big money, I had no problem paying tuition that year. The district had primary responsibility for emergency repairs on a lot of the infrastructure, with significant funding, so we all were busy.” 

Ted noted that his main position with USACE was as Resident Engineer for the repair of the three schools on Fort Richardson, the field house and the Birchwood Elementary School. Contractors were motivated to get things buttoned up before school started and the snow fell, so the work went very quickly and smoothly. One of the new things he saw during the work on the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor schools and the Fort Richardson field house was the use of high pressure epoxy injection to repair cracks in cast in place concrete, of which there were many. Ted noted that he saw a core test break from a piece including an epoxy repaired crack from the 5040th Air Force Hospital at Elmendorf. The parent concrete broke, but the epoxy did not.  

All of the structures repaired with this epoxy method are still in service today except the hospital, which was replaced in 1995 by a 433,000-ft² combined Air Force, Army, and Veterans Affairs facility—built to stringent seismic guidelines and modified during steel erection with some newly revised guidelines stemming from the Northridge California Earthquake analyses that could not have been more timely when it came to creating a more robust structure. 


Elmendorf Hospital had significant damage, but was quickly put back into service until it was eventual replaced in 1995.

Ted also touted another major opportunity that occurred during the earthquake repairs—the separation of the stormwater and sewage drain systems in Anchorage and on base, which were combined into a few major outfalls into Cook Inlet. The wastewater was separated and routed to the new treatment plant at Point Woronzof. He noted this was a tremendous improvement that would have been vastly more difficult to accomplish later, and exemplified good engineering foresight and planning. 

One of the things Ted observed was the detailed analysis of the failure of some relatively new tilt-up panel concrete warehouses on Elmendorf, which were adjacent to a number of much older warehouses that only suffered some crushed block in the corners. The newer warehouses were 200-ft by 1,000-ft, with five 200-ft by 200-ft bays. The five bays in each warehouse came down like houses of cards, each flopping transverse to the long direction of the structure in opposite directions. Upon analysis it was found that the required ties to the fire walls at the internal ends of each bay were not installed. It was also discovered that the tilt-up panels had less than half of the specified reinforcement, mostly in the horizontal direction, and the reinforcing mesh was butted together without overlaps or welding. Ted said the construction contractor was “blacklisted” and the inspection procedures followed by the district were significantly overhauled. Immediate contracting results, rather than a prolonged court effort, was so effective when it was needed most in getting the right message out. 

Unified Response

Response to the earthquake by all of the engineering organizations—from the military and civilians work forces was immediate and effective. Operation “Helping Hand” was implemented on the military side and soldiers, airmen and equipment started rolling in from other parts of the state—then in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.  

At the time, military equipment brought to bear throughout affected areas included dozers, cranes, dump trucks, front end loaders, Bailey Bridges, generators, water purification units (Erdlators), water distributers, and even mine detectors to help locate water lines. Snow and rock slides on access routes needed to be cleared. Electricity, heat and water were restored to Elmendorf and Fort Richardson within days, but water use was restricted because of the impacts throughout the Anchorage bowl. Accolades for the military support of Alaska for earthquake recovery efforts came from Alaskan Mayors, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, the Alaska State Legislature, the U.S. Senate, Congress, and the President of the United States. The common theme of the recognition was that time and time again, those who saw firsthand the actual areas impacted and the military’s role in rapid recovery was a result of a fine spirit of comradeship and the quiet ability to work as part of the total effort—knowing full well that rescue, patrol and rehabilitation would have been impossible without that support. This also included major logistics efforts including airlift, sealift, communications, search and rescue, security and medical support. 


Operation “Helping Hand” included airlift such as this C-97 from California bringing relief supplies distributed by volunteers.

John L. Aho, Ph.D., Sc.D., current member, and past Chair, of both the Geotechnical Advisory Commission and Alaska Seismic Hazards Safety Commission, and who has been involved in seismic risk mitigation issues for over 40 years in Alaska, remarked “I would note that while there is much remaining to do, the Municipality of Anchorage and the State of Alaska has come a long way in the area of seismic risk mitigation. The municipality has had a Geotechnical Advisory Commission for approximately 40 years that addresses risk mitigation and provides advice to the Mayor, Department Heads, and Assembly. Also, the State of Alaska has a functioning Alaska Seismic Hazards Safety Commission.” (More can be found concerning ASHSC at www.seismic.alaska.gov.)  

When Dr. Aho says there is much to be done, he amplifies it by stating: “I specifically mean that more attention needs to be given the appropriate review of earthquake engineering calculations, detailing and subsequent construction and also to the proper siting of major structures. Schools are of particular interest to me and I believe all school facilities should have a truly independent review of seismic deign calculations and detailing and that there should be full-time inspection of construction. Also a rapid visual screening process should be instituted to identify at-risk school facilities.”  

The U.S. military in Alaska has been active and at the forefront of earthquake emergency preparedness and readiness training. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) will play a key role in the event Defense Support to Civil Authorities is activated to respond to search, rescue, and recovery operations after a major earthquake. To enable such a response requires that the base be able to first recover and stabilize infrastructure on its own to posture for support outside the gate. JBER has an established Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan, with a portion related to earthquake response and recovery. Annual earthquake readiness exercises are conducted to test the abilities of emergency responders.  

Self-sustaining energy security for JBER is a key component to recovery and response. With the help of its utilities privatization contractor, Doyon Utilities, the installation is nearing completion of years of planning and establishing this energy security goal. One key component concerns construction of a landfill gas waste to energy plant that provides renewable electricity to the Richardson portion of the joint base. Site work for construction began in September 2011. The original plan called for the plant to be constructed with four turbine units but capable of expanding by two units planned approximately 5 and 10 years after initial construction completion. Commissioning and test operation of the new plant with four 1.4-MW Jensbacher (made by General Electric) generation units began in August 2012 (commissioning and test operations). And four units began full operation scheduled in January 2013. During the construction/initial operations period, it was discovered there was enough gas generated by the landfill to support the addition of a fifth unit in August 2013. Doyon has installed the fifth unit and it was successfully commissioned in August 2013. This plant has ability to switch between landfill methane and natural gas sources without interruption of operations. 

The second key component of energy security is 3-MW diesel fired turbines with substation as a backup generation plant. The third component to finalizing the energy security goal is a new intertie feeder between Elmendorf and Richardson cantonment areas as well as a new second commercial feed line from Anchorage Municipal Light and Power to Richardson. In absence of commercial power, methane generated and backup power plants can cycle enough electricity for “survival” rolling brown-outs throughout the base. In event of partial commercial disruption, commercial power can be routed and flowed from just about any direction in a loop feed.  

Moving Forward

David Frenier is Chief of the Alaska District Engineering Division. He shares that over the 50 years since Alaska's Good Friday Earthquake seismic design standards have evolved and improved significantly. The current standards are a product of lessons learned from past events, stronger research and greatly improved testing. Computer-aided design software and more sophisticated techniques are able to be employed in the design of structures. USACE Alaska District utilizes various computer-aided design software primarily RISA 3D and STAAD, to perform seismic design of structures. The software and add-on modules allow for sophisticated design techniques to be employed and the integration with building information modeling. The four-story high, 480 person barracks being constructed on the base was designed by the Alaska District, and progressive collapse requirements have been incorporated as a key seismic design feature. Currently, USACE Alaska District uses the 2012 International Building Code, Uniform Facility Criteria (UFC) 3-310-4 “Seismic Design for Buildings,” and UFC 3-301-01 “Structural Engineering.” Within the UFC there are supplemental references to other ACI, ASCE and AISC documents and standards.  

We have come far in understanding how facilities should be designed and built (and renovated) to these widely known standards. When we perform design work we rely heavily on the standards, modern construction techniques, Quality Control and Quality Assurance processes, and expect meaningful Independent Technical Review (ITR) of all design work—especially that critical to the safety of the structure. ER 1110-1-12 “Quality Management” defines the process used throughout USACE to perform quality control, assurance and ITRs. Both internal technical staff and resources from within the Pacific Ocean Division and the Corps network of Mandatory Centers of Expertise are utilized to perform ITRs.  


This was a six-floor lift slab building under construction in Anchorage that collapsed in the Good Friday Earthquake.

Other tools and preparedness actions our Alaskan residents have now compared to 50 years ago, of course, includes the internet, with ready access to databases and helpful information in an unending amount of site specific detail. Particularly strong is our ability to call up GIS data, use available programs from Google Earth, including Street View of many Alaskan locations. We also have many aircraft and pilots in Anchorage and elsewhere in the state that could aid in damage assessments. Now we have the opportunity to get real-time satellite telemetry and can launch remotely piloted aircraft to survey pipelines, coastlines, roads, bridges, railroads, airfields, ports and harbors from the sky. We have LIDAR ability and that could help define the new geography after a quake.  

We understand things like bootlegger cove clay better. We know more about permafrost. We now know how to construct structures year round in Alaska. We know the risk of structural integrity is at its most vulnerable during the design and erection phases of the structure. We have redundancies built into many of our vital utilities. We have much more invested into buried electrical utilities, and many of the citizens of Alaska have made significant improvements to their homes—and it is not unusual to find homeowners with emergency power generators and other adequate emergency supplies. We have constructed seawalls and relocated some ports and harbors entirely. We have new ways to accept barge traffic and roll on, roll off ships and cargo containers. Our Alaskan Railroad system has been beefed up and is quite efficient. Our State Ferry System can be called upon to support the need. Our power systems have greater reliability and are expected to perform during and immediately after earthquakes. Our road system, however, is still not extensive and is subject to the vulnerabilities of a major earthquake as our population is now more spread out.  

Alaska is a resource rich state and has enjoyed the wealth and prosperity the oil and gas discoveries have brought to it, and as such, with a population now of over 730,000—obviously, most of them did not witness the Good Friday Earthquake. The last big event, Denali Quake was a 7.9 Magnitude earthquake on Nov. 3, 2002, 176-mi north-northeast of Anchorage at a depth of 3.1-mi. The Alyeska Pipeline (known as TAPS) is a critical asset to the United States. The seismic design of TAPS addresses two earthquake hazards: design contingency earthquakes (DCE) and the design operating earthquakes (DOE). DCE may interrupt operations but will not compromise the integrity of pipe. DOE are lower-intensity earthquakes that have ground motion amplitudes half those of a DCE. Operations should be able to continue following a DCE. Alaskan pipeline engineers designed TAPS to have greater flexibility and movement at the state’s major fault lines. These allowances included the Denali Fault to allow for 20-ft lateral, 5-ft vertical of movement. It was not surprising then, that the TAPS pipeline withstood the Denali Quake, even though it was basically centered along the fault line. The ground along the fault moved an estimated 18-ft horizontally and nearly 2.5-ft vertically. In places, the quake moved the pipeline 7.5-ft horizontally and 2.5-ft vertically. The shaking actually broke five above ground crossbeams that supported the pipeline along with two vertical support members. Due to the energy absorption design and materials of the pipeline, nine anchors that support it were tripped and insulation was crushed in several spots. The quake was the largest on the Denali Fault since at least 1912 and among the strongest earthquakes recorded in North America in the last 100 years. 


The Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, where it crosses the Denali Fault, is designed to move 20-ft laterally and 5-ft vertically.

While the footprint of military bases and posts in Alaska has changed over the years due to closures, realignments, and new or different missions, the installations have the wherewithal to endure an extreme earthquake and have been steadily progressing in providing facilities with a greater seismic capability than those of 50 years ago. Although many older military facilities have not yet been retrograded to modern standards, we know we must prepare accordingly. 

We should by now have pertinent “All Hazard Plans” established, and can also reasonably rely on critical information gathered in our SAME “Fast Start Plans.” Our first responders have modern equipment, exceptional training and superb communications. We know how to conduct operations in accordance with the Incident Command System and are well-versed in working together at the local, state and federal levels through exercises and other real world emergency responses. The methods to obtain funding and declare emergencies at all levels are much clearer today. Politicians have learned the hard lesson after Katrina that we expect and need them to lead, be present, plan ahead, and keep the blame game from disrupting responses. When the Good Friday Earthquake devastated much of Alaska in 1964, politicians had been fighting to eliminate the “unneeded” Civil Defense (CD) organizations. That nonsense stopped when the Secretary of Defense proclaimed that CD was a significant organization in the help they provided with response and recovery, in part enabling the military presence there to concentrate on the Cold War missions, as in spring 1964, the Soviet Union threat was real and widespread. However, nationwide, Washington D.C. politicians were treating the five-year old State of Alaska’s emergency funding needs so egregiously that the two U.S. senators from Alaska, Ted Stevens and Mike Gravel actually voted against a federal disaster relief bill because it did not extend to Alaskans financial aid.  

Today, we also have tremendous assets in The Alaska Earthquake Information Center (AEIS). AEIS, a member of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS), is funded by the State of Alaska, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey. The center is located at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska. AEIS receives data from more than 400 seismic sites. It integrates all seismic networks within Alaska and archives and processes data from the National Tsunami Warning Center located in Palmer, Alaska, and the Alaska Volcano Observatory with offices in Fairbanks and Anchorage. All of these approximately 200 sites in the network operate with a real-time data acquisition system at the Geophysical Institute. The network is further strengthened by three Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology sites, at College, Kodiak Island and Adak, and two ANSS sites at Eagle and Wrangell.  

Scientists have begun to research into what is referred to as “Archeoseismology” by some—it stands to reason that the 9.2 Magnitude Earthquake of 1964 was probably not the first to ever hit the United States, nor will it be the last. Ground motion recordings have only taken place in the last 100 or so years. Looking back into time may be key to helping to predict the next big event. The total death toll of 131 was considered small for a quake of 9.2 Magnitude, though the sparse population of the state commensurate to others surely played a part in keeping that number down. Other smaller quakes of course have killed tens of thousands around the world. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that there are 500,000 detectable earthquakes in the world each year: 100,000 of those can be felt, and 100 of them cause damage. Alaska gets nearly one-third of all the measureable earthquakes in the United States annually, so Cheechackos and Sourdoughs alike need to be acutely aware of what needs to be done in preparation for the next big earthquake, knowing full well have a wealth of pertinent information now available will help in that regard. 

To that end, a large, all-encompassing capstone exercise “Alaska Shield” is planned for Alaska in early 2014. That exercise will include an earthquake scenario in which the state and federal participants will assess community, state, and federal response and long-term recovery. It will be the culmination of recent table top exercises under the “Alaska Shield” mantra, and will have incorporated much of what we know from the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake and others since. We can never let down our guard and as another major quake is not a question of “if” but “when.” 


Patrick M. Coullahan, P.E., PMP, CFM, F.SAME, is Chief, Construction Division, USACE Alaska District, and Allan D. Lucht, P.E., M.SAME, is Deputy Director, 673rd Civil Engineer Group, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. They can be reached at 907-753-2770, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; and 907-552-3747, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., respectively.