Remembering lessons of past

Posted: Sunday, March 28, 2004

Two key anniversaries in Alaska's history passed last week with little fanfare: the 15th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the 40th anniversary of the Good Friday earthquake.

The 987-foot tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989, (also a Good Friday), spilling nearly 11 million gallons of Alaska crude oil. It was the nation's worst oil spill. While a casual observer might not notice any lingering effects of the spill in Prince William Sound, on the spill's anniversary last week a group asked the federal government to seek $100 million more from the oil company. The oil spill took a terrible toll on fish, wildlife and a way of life. Punitive damages in the case remain on appeal all these years later.

At 5:36 p.m. March 27, 1964, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in North America and the second-largest recorded in the world struck Alaska. Its magnitude was later recorded at 9.2. The only larger earthquake ever recorded was in 1960 in Chile. That quake measured a magnitude of 9.5.

The Alaska quake and the tsunami that followed it claimed the lives of 131 people 115 in Alaska and 16 in Oregon and California, and indelibly changed the landscape of Alaska.

Writes Ned Rozell, a science writer at the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks: "During the earthquake, more than 100,000 square miles of Alaska broke, twisted, tilted, dropped and rose. Seward moved about 47 feet south; Cordova migrated 46 feet southeast. Parts of Montague Island rose more than 30 feet; areas around Portage dropped nine feet. According to a National Academy of Sciences study commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the earthquake also killed 90 percent of the mussels in Prince William Sound, stopped the flow of Ship Creek in Anchorage for 18 hours and shortened the intervals between eruptions of Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park."

The oil spill and earthquake anniversaries should never pass unnoticed because remembering them also reminds us of how things have changed; valuable lessons came out of the tragedy of these two events.

John Devens, the executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, a group which grew out of the spill, noted some of the good last week. One positive is that Alaska is now looked to as model of how to do things right. Among the things the state does is involve its citizens through both the Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound advisory councils in the safe handling and transportation of oil. Double-hull tankers which now ply Alaska waters also are an outgrowth of the spill.

While things may have changed for the better, Alaskans cannot afford to be complacent about the inherent risks involved in the oil industry. The more private citizens, industry and regulators work together, the fewer those risks will be.

While there's no technology to prevent an earthquake, new instrumentation has been installed in the 20-story Atwood Building in Anchorage. Six nearby borehole sensors at depths ranging from 15 to 20 feet complement the building instrumentation and "will determine how the ground and the building respond to the same earthquake shaking, information essential for engineers to mitigate property damage and loss of life," according to a press release from the U.S. Geological Survey announcing the new system Friday.

The move is "a critical first step in making our cities and people safer from the devastating effects of earthquakes," noted one engineer involved in the project.

Although Alaska today enjoys an improved ability to monitor earthquake activity, reducing risks to lives and property in future quakes still relies heavily on individual citizens being prepared for such an event.

Personal preparation not only will minimize damage to people and property, it also will free disaster-response workers to concentrate their efforts where they are most needed. A good rule of thumb in planning for disaster is that you and your family should be able to be self-sufficient for at least three days.

As the anniversaries of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Good Friday earthquake slip quietly by for another year, it's a good time to ask: Are you and your family prepared for disaster?

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