A major quake in 1964 changed the way the state designed its
A powerful earthquake rocked Anchorage, Alaska, last Friday,
sending horrific videos of
swaying rooms and fractured roads
rippling out across social media. Yet amazingly, no deaths were
reported as a result of the 7.0 quake—a testament to Alaska’s
commitment to resilience.
“Building codes mean something,” Alaska Gov. Bill Walker
said in a press conference Friday.
When the earthquake struck at 8:29 a.m. local time just eight
miles outside of Anchorage on Friday morning, officials braced for
the worst. The shaking began with a sharp jolt and lasted for a
minute, causing many people to run outside. Worries immediately
circulated that snow and freezing temperatures would hamper relief
efforts. Alaska only sees about six hours of daylight this time of
Yet no large buildings collapsed, a handful of structure fires
were quickly put out, and even though many homes and businesses
were damaged, there was no loss of life. Although some
roads were shown completely impassible, with large swaths of
asphalt shattered like ice, no bridges or other major pieces of
infrastructure were destroyed.
Geologically, Alaska lucked out. Even though Friday’s
earthquake struck in a highly populated area, the epicenter was
relatively deep—about 25 to 30 miles below the ground—meaning
that a lot of its energy was released before it reached the
But the real reason that this earthquake in Alaska was not more
destructive can be attributed to one major factor: Updated building
requirements which properly reflect the severity of risk.
In 1964, Alaska suffered the
strongest earthquake in U.S. history when a 9.2 rocked the
state. (Only one earthquake, a 9.5 that hit Chile in 1960, has been
measured stronger.) The 1964 quake—known as both the Good Friday
and Great Alaska earthquake—caused widespread damage that killed
over 100 people, including 13 in California due to tsunamis.
Some of the most
striking photos of the damage include the collapse of a street
in Anchorage’s business district due to a landslide. In some
places, the signage of businesses are shown resting on the
sidewalk; in other places, the sidewalk itself dropped 11 feet.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Storefronts on Anchorage’s Fourth
Street plunged below street level due to a landslide during
Alaska’s 1964 earthquake. It trigged major changes in building
After 1964, the way Alaska addressed its recovery made
earthquake safety part of the national conversation. Beyond
revamping its building codes, rebuilding efforts also included
conversations about where not to build, as William Leith, senior
science advisor for earthquake and geologic hazards at the U.S.
Geological Survey testified to Congress in 2014. “The 1964
disaster demonstrated the importance of considering earthquake
effects in urban planning and development.”
Like the heated conversations about
where and how communities should be allowed to rebuild after
California’s deadliest and most devastating wildfire season
in history, changes to zoning and building codes are becoming
central to a city’s ability to recover from any disruption,
especially as climate change accelerates the
power and frequency of natural disasters.
Still, 50 years later, the state of California, which
shoulders the country’s greatest earthquake risk due to its
population density, hasn’t seen the same urgency when it comes to
legislation around building and safety codes. In the last 30
smaller-magnitude quakes in California—Northridge’s 6.7 in
1994 and Loma Prieta’s 6.9 in 1989—caused billions in damage
and killed more than 50 people each.
state hearing earlier this year, seismologist Lucy Jones and
author of the book
The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can
Do About Them) said without reform, a California city is likely
to suffer the same fate as Christchurch, New Zealand, which was hit
by an 6.2 earthquake in 2011.
“Nobody died in a modern building,” she testified. “But
once the dust settled, they had to tear down 1,800 buildings and
their central business district was closed for five years.”
A New York Times story
noted that “unfazed” Alaskans who spent the weekend taking
selfies in fissures of asphalt were already heading back to work
today. But that’s the real goal for any city—to be up and
running, even hours after a major disaster.
Tomasz Sulczynski was
headed to the Anchorage airport when the earthquake struck,
trapping his SUV in a sinkhole. When the shaking stopped, he
climbed out of his car and hitched a ride to the airport. By the
time he got there, the airport had already been thoroughly checked
for damage and had resumed normal operations. He made his
Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
Alaska’s earthquake didn’t kill anyone—here’s why