Sat, March 01, 2014

“Helping Hand” Military Response to Good Friday Earthquake

Editor’s note: This month Alaskans will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the 50th anniversary of the Good Friday Earthquake. All month long this blog will feature posts on both events by a number of Alaska writers and historians. Check back often. We begin the series with this post by John Cloe about the military’s earthquake response.

by John Haile Cloe
The Alaska Good Friday Earthquake began at 5:36 p.m., March 27, 1964, with a force that measured at the time of 8.3 to 8.6 on the Richter Scale, later upgraded to 9.2. It lasted approximately four minutes and affected an approximately 100,000 square-mile area of South Central Alaska with the epicenter over six miles inland from College Fiord. [1]
The earthquake was the largest in North America, the second most powerful after the 1960 Chile earthquake, cost the lives of 115 Alaskans and 16 others killed in Oregon and California. Most resulted from rapidly rising waters caused by tsunami and underwater landslides. [2]
Alaska at the time had a limited natural disaster response capability. It depended for the most part on the Federal Civil Defense system set up to protect civilians from military attack. Up until the earthquake, Alaskans had never faced a natural disaster involving a populated area of that magnitude.
Operation Helping Hand, Seward

The military helped fill the void. Within two minutes of the earthquake, the Alaskan NORAD Command Center in the Alaskan Command headquarters building on Elmendorf AFB became the focal center for damage assessment, response, and subsequent recovery efforts. Lieutenant General Raymond Reeves, Commander-in-Chief, Alaskan Command, quickly arrived to take charge of providing military support to state and local authorities. The military re-established long-line communications within twelve minutes of the first tremor. At the time the military owned and operated the Alaska Communication System that supported civilian and well as military needs.
General Reeves conferred with state and local political leaders and sent a detailed message within hours to Washington D.C. providing an initial assessment. Based in part on the assessment, a call from Governor Egan and other actions, President Johnson declared Alaska a major disaster area March 28. [3]
Subordinate units to the Alaskan Command, the Alaskan Air Command and United States Army, Alaska, also established command centers to respond to earthquake assessment and recovery efforts. At the time, the military did not have plans for dealing with natural disasters, but it did have a command, control, and communications structure and the needed resources. In addition it had the flexibility to respond to changing crisis inherent in military planning, operations, and training. [4]
With rapidly approaching darkness, the military turned its immediate attention to the hard hit Anchorage, whose citizens were being rattled by aftershocks. The city of 100,000 had been hard hit, particularly in areas containing “bootlegger clay” deemed unsafe to build on by geologists. Most of the damages and nine deaths occurred in downtown Anchorage along 4th Avenue and L Street and in the upscale Turnagain subdivision. The control tower at Anchorage International Airport had been toppled and all but 3,000 feet of runway rendered inoperable. The low numbers of dead in contrast to the major damages were attributed to the facts that most people were at home and prepared for cold weather, most homes were built of wood that withstood shaking, and there were no fires. [5]
The military bases, built on firmer ground, had suffered moderate damages. The Elmendorf control tower had also been toppled. A transport pilot parked his plane near the operations building and began controlling air traffic with his radio until a temporary system could be setup. His wife served as a runner. A mobile tower arrived March 28 and Elmendorf became the hub of air operations for disaster relief response. [6]
Elsewhere, soldiers and airmen on the bases quickly restored order. The New York Times and later Anchorage Daily News reported that that men at the Nike Hercules air defense missile site in what is now Kincaid Park had “struggled with numb fingers” to prevent the missiles from exploding. The articles alluded to nuclear warheads, which authorities declined to confirm. [7]
Relief supplies being delivered by
helicopter (UAF-1972-153-298)

The Army dispatched troops including 1,350 Alaska National Guard personnel who were completing annual training on Camp Carroll, Fort Richardson to provide urban search and rescue and security in the now darkened Anchorage. The military also dispatched water trailers, generators and set up emergency kitchens and first aid centers during the night. [8] By 7:00 p.m., the military had set up an emergency shelter with kitchen that provided a place for some 1,365 people who had found themselves homeless. [9]
The dawn of March 28 found the stricken landscape plagued by marginal weather that restricted air operations. Despite this, Army helicopters from Fort Wainwright attempted to get through to Valdez, taking off shortly after midnight with medical personnel and medical supplies and equipment. They had to turn back at Gulkana. A truck convoy, which had also left at the same time, got through bringing relief the morning of the 28th. Others followed. The Army, at the request of the mayor, set up an evacuation center at Gulkana, and assisted in the evacuation of some 500 people who found themselves without shelter. Forty-five others remained in Valdez to begin the recovery work. [10]
Valdez, in Prince William Sound near the earthquake epicenter, had been hit hard with 30 lives lost to the earthquake tremors and underwater landslides. Most had gone to the dock area to watch the off-loading of the 10,815 ton M.V. Chena. The waters had receded shortly after the earthquake struck and then came back in full force in a series of huge waves that lifted the Chena 30-feet above the pier and completely demolished the dock area. The Chena survived, but those on the dock did not. One of the vessel’s crew members filmed the crowd watching the off-loading while other crew members pitched fruit to the children and then filmed the full force of the tsunami. It became part of the documentary “Though the Earth Be Moved.” [11] The raging waters also caused major damages to the rest of the town. [12]
Chenega, a Native village of 76, also in Prince William Sound, received earlier warning then Valdez and 51 made it to high ground before a wall of water destroyed the village and killed the rest. The tsunami killed another six in the Price William Sound area at Port Nellie Juan, Port Ashton, Point Nowell, and Whiteside. Whittier lost 13 people. [13]
Casualties from the tsunami would have no doubt been higher if not for the work of the U.S. Fleet Weather Station on Kodiak. Within 30 minutes of the initial earthquake shock, its personnel detected the first sign of a tsunami off Cape Chiniak and immediately issued an evacuation warning for the rest of Kodiak and mainland Alaska. [14] The destructive force of the earthquake left eleven citizens in Kodiak and three dependents at the nearby Navy base dead. The 270 citizens at the other communities on the island and outlining islands made it safety to high ground and were taken care of by the Navy before being evacuated to a temporary camp on Fort Richardson.
The navy also responded by bringing in construction personnel and specialists to restore services. Additional help arrived in the form of Navy and Coast Guard ships. [15]
Seward suffered 13 dead and massive destruction from submarine landslides and large waves confined in the narrow Resurrection Bay. [16] The town was hit with a triple whammy: fire, shock, and tsunami that wiped out the harbor, set the fuel tank farm ablaze, demolished buildings, and caused major damage to the utilities. The only thing remaining intact was the airport. The military put it to good use in the weeks ahead, flying in personnel, equipment, and supplies to set up shelters, provide food, and restore power. The Seward Highway and Alaska Railroad had been rendered useless by multiple avalanches and downed bridges. The military began the slow process of assisting in clearing the way and replacing bridges with temporary ones. [17]
Bad weather hampered air reconnaissance and search and rescue for most of Saturday, March 28.  By late afternoon, the Army was able to launch two aerial camera equipped OV-1 Mohawks and two CH-21 Shawnee medium helicopters. The Mohawks were ideally suited for aerial photographs documenting the devastated areas and the helicopters for search and rescue and emergency evacuation. Lieutenant Gary L. Lobal, flying one of the CH-21s reported at 4:00 p.m. that Whittier looked like a “ball of fire” from the burning fuel tanks. They landed to evacuate a seriously injured woman still clutching her dead baby and her husband. On the way back to Fort Richardson, Lobal and his copilot spotted a crowd of motorist on the Seward Highway who had been stranded there since Friday. They landed and loaded sixteen women and children aboard, leaving the men to be rescued later.
The Air Force launched a U-2 strategic reconnaissance aircraft from Eielson AFB and two camera equipped B-58 bombers from Carswell AFB flew photographic missions over devastated area on March 28-29. The high resolutions photographs were immediately flown to Washington D.C. for viewing by President Johnson and senior aides. Other aircraft continued to photograph the damages during the course of the recovery effort. [18]
Weather improved the next day, Sunday, March 29, and Army aircraft took to the air in force flying search and rescue, photo reconnaissance, evacuation, and supply missions. The helicopters proved especially useful in reaching the small communities with little or no airfields. Army aviation also flew passenger missions in support of governmental officials and the media who by now were flocking to Alaska. [19] Altogether in the two weeks that followed the earthquake, Army aviation flew 589 hours in 556 sorties in support of disaster relief, airlifting 137,075 pounds of cargo and transporting 947 passengers.
The Alaskan Air Command and Alaska Air National Guard provided airlift support starting the morning of March 28 when 17 twin-engine C-123 medium transports roared down the runway on Elmendorf AFB heading for the earthquake and tidal wave ravaged communities of Kodiak, Seward and Valdez with cargo bays loaded with supplies and equipment. The airlift continued unabated for 12 days with other aircraft joining in an effort that involved transporting 875,000 pounds of cargo and approximately 1,000 passengers including evacuees from the stricken areas.
Support also came in the form of massive airlift operations flown by the Military Airlift Service, which broke all previous disaster airlift records by hauling in 2,570,000 pounds of cargo ranging from baby food to heavy equipment from Lower 48 bases. It also transported 500 passengers. [20] Members of the Alaska’s Congressional delegation were among the passengers brought up. They along with the director of the White House Office of Emergency Planning arrived the afternoon of March 28 in Air Force One. By then the Department of Interior had assumed responsibility for earthquake response and was operating out of the Anchorage public safety building where the city police department was located.
Victor Fischer, who was among the group arriving in Air Force One, found everyone calm and pitching in to help where they could in the recovery effort. In the weeks ahead, various federal and state agencies worked together to restore essential services and rebuild. [21] The military began winding down its ground support by April 3, but continued to provide air support when required. [22]
In the end, the earthquake provided a significant boost to Alaska’s economy, which was suffering from the end of major military construction and smaller than expected oil revenues. Federal assistance released reconstruction funds totaling hundreds of million of dollars to rebuild the shattered infrastructure. It helped sustain the economy until the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope. [23]
In the years that followed, Alaska greatly improved its disaster response capabilities. A Department of Defense directive in 1965 assigned the National Guard with coordinating military disaster response. The Alaska Guard established the Alaska Division of Emergency Services manned by a full time staff with augmentations that could be brought in. The larger communities also established emergency response centers. Training events and exercises were routinely conducted to insure everyone was ready for the next major disaster. [24]
[1] Grantz, Arthur, Plafjer, George and Kachadoorian, Reuben, Alaska’s Good Friday Earthquake, March 27, 1964, A Preliminary Geologic Evaluation, Geological Survey Circular 491, Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington DC, 1964;
[2] Report, Committee on the Alaska Earthquake of the Division of Earth Sciences National Research Council, The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, Human Ecology, National Academy of Science, Washington DC, 1970. pp.ix-xiii.
[3] Report, HQ Alaskan Command, Operation Helping Hand, The Armed Forces React to Earthquake Disaster, not dated, pp. 2-3.
[4] John Weidman, PhD and MSgt Charles Ravenstein, Hist., Alaskan Air Command, 1946, p. 776; Truman Strobridge, Operation Helping Hand, The United States Army, Alaska and the Alaskan Earthquake, 27 March-7 May 1964, p. ii.
[5] Grantz, Plafjer and Kachadoorian, Reuben, Alaska’s Good Friday Earthquake, pp.14-15.
[6] Weidman and Ravenstein, Hist, AAC, 1964, p.476          
[7]  “Missiles in Alaska Damaged by Quake,” The New York Times, April 5, 1964; “Flashback: Nukes at Kincaid? ’64 Quake Could Have Set off a Cataclysm,” Anchorage Daily News, Apr 1, 2007.
[8] Report, HQ Alaskan Command, Operation Helping Hand, p. 2-3; Strobridge, Operation Helping Hand, p. 9
[9] Weidman and Ravenstein, Hist, AAC, 1964, p. 476.
[10] ALCOM, Operation Helping Hand, p. 69.
[11] Geological Survey Circular 491, pp. 16-24.
[12] ALCOM, Operation Helping Hand, p. 69-70.
[13] Geological Survey Circular 491, pp. 16 and 25.
[14] Ibid., p. 11.
[15] ALCOM, Operation Helping Hand, p. 42-44.
[16] Geological Survey Circular 491, p. 15.
[17] ALCOM, Operation Helping Hand, p. 50-52.
[18] Weidman and Ravenstein, Hist, AAC, 1964, p.476.
[19] Strobridge, Operation Helping Hand, pp. 27.
[20] ALCOM, Operation Helping Hand, p. 15.
[21] Victor Fischer with Charles Wohlforth, To Russia With Love, An Alaska’s Journey, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, AK, 2012, pp.199-210.
[22] Strobridge, Operation Helping Hand, p. 93.
[23] Terrence Cole, Paper, Blinded by Riches: The Permanent Funding Problem and the Prudhoe Bay Effect, prepared for Understanding Alaska Program at Institute of Social and Economic Research University of Alaska Anchorage, Jan 2004.

[24] John Haile Cloe, ALCOM J79 (Historian), Talking Paper, “Civil-Military Disaster Response and Planning in Alaska,” 15 Nov 1990.