The 9.2 magnitude earthquake caused some areas to drop in elevation by eight feet and other areas rose by up to 38 feet. (Photo by USGS)
“Have you ever fallen off the bottom step; when you think it’s there but it’s not? My house moved that way,” says employee Kathleen Wright, a survivor of the Great Alaskan Earthquake in 1964. “I was standing there while the walls moved toward me and the pictures on the wall were hanging at 90-degree angles. In the kitchen, what was the wall became the ceiling.”Wright, an interior designer for BPA’s Space Management group in Vancouver, Wash., says the 9.2 magnitude earthquake started with sounds like a freight train, as if it was traveling past her home in Anchorage. Then, it turned into sounds “like a sonic boom from an Air Force jet” and from there kept getting louder. Then the house began to shake.The noise was so loud she couldn’t hear her mother yell, “Earthquake!” in the same room. Wright, age 11, her sister and mother Gerry, moved to a coat closet too small to close the door and waited out the earthquake. “I could see out a window where a telephone pole was waving side to side,” she explains waving her hand back and forth. “I could see sky then it switched to ground then back to sky. In my child’s mind, the five minutes of the quake felt like the way life was going to be, a new reality, like life on a pitching boat in a gale.”
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 144 people lost their lives in the quake and the property damages totaled about $2.3 billion. (Photo by USGS)When the house stopped moving, Wright’s family home was in ruins. The kitchen cabinets, now with doors hanging down from the ceiling, lost all their dishes, broken on the floor. Major William D. Wright, Kathleen’s father and an intelligence officer for the Strategic Air Command at Fort Elmendorf, was at work when the earthquake happened. Gerry collected up her children and headed to the Air Force base. She reached the front entrance of her husband’s three-story brick building where his office was in the basement. “The biggest man I had ever seen, an air policeman wearing an Elmer Fudd hat, you know the one with the floppy ears, and a big parka, holding a rifle stood guarding the door,” Wright recalls. With a daughter holding each hand Gerry demanded to see her husband. “No ma’am, you can’t see him. He is fine ma’am,” he replied. “He was the only person I ever saw stop her, a tiny little force of nature she was,” Says Wright. It was three days until Major Wright was released and able to reconnect with his family.Back at home, telephone lines were gone and there were no working toilets. They worried about typhoid from drinking contaminated water. It was March in Alaska and they had lost heat to their home. The family moved into a room with one small window and a little oil stove. The space was just big enough to fit each family member and they used a coffee can for the toilet. They lived in the room for two months. Supplies began to come in from the Air Force base. People shored up what they had to start rebuilding their lives, says Wright. One of her friend’s home sank into the earth, so they lived in the gas station they owned. “Take a monopoly house and set it on top of crème brulee and push down. That’s what happened. Homes and buildings were built on blue clay, sand and silt which made heavy objects sink,” she says.Once or twice a week for a year, aftershocks became the norm.According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a total of 144 people lost their lives. Many of those fatalities were in areas where there were fjords which caused underwater landslides, another type of tsunami. The underwater landslides began while the earthquake continued to shake, causing three waves in three minutes. Other people lost their lives from fallen infrastructure, such as the local 5-story J.C. Penny building that had 10 foot by 10 foot slabs of concrete falling onto the sidewalk below.About 185,000 miles of land was disrupted by the Great Alaskan Earthquake. In some areas land dropped elevation by 8 feet and in other spots, it rose by 38 feet. The effects reached as far as Hawaii and Louisiana. The property damage was about $2.3 billion dollars. Between her experience during and after the Great Alaskan Earthquake as well as her time as an Air crew life support airman, Wright has the knowledge and habit of being prepared.
Employee Kathleen Wright stays prepared by keeping a go bag in her SUV. Among her choice items are a hand crank radio and flashlight, pocket knife, an LED light with batteries, flat tire spray and a pocket size multi tool.“It can be time consuming or costly to prepare, but it doesn’t have to be. You can buy blankets and backpacks from second hand stores and gather your supplies over time,” says Wright. It’s a part of my life; it’s habit. I put a vase on my shelf and I put putty under it.”The military veteran emphasizes the need to have a “go bag” and to know how to shut down your home. “Prepare to boil water and have waterproof matches,” says Wright. “Don’t think a FEMA truck is coming with water anytime soon. And if it does don’t expect it to be within miles of your door.” She adds, “Know how to shut off gas and water mains. Know where the fuse box is. It’s not gender specific to know these things. Everyone needs to know how to do it.”Wright has a go kit in her vehicle; at home she has furniture fastened to walls and extra supplies and keeps a small go kit by her desk. She looks at such an extreme disaster as a 9.0 earthquake not as “apocalyptic” but a reminder of how dependent people will be based on how well they are prepared.“Don’t underestimate Mother Nature,” Wright warns. “The sound of the earthquake and the visuals are something you can never forget; the sounds of the earth shifting, opening up and consuming buildings. It is as though a living thing is being torn limb from limb.”