Friday, March 27, 2009

J-Week Liveblogging
Alaskan Issues Panel:
Are We Ready for the Big One?

This morning’s disaster-preparedness panel is being moderated by Michael Carey, who begins by introducing the panel members:

John Madden, Director of the State Division of Emergency Services
Lt. Gen. Craig Campbell, Commissioner of State Dept. of Military and Veteran Affairs
Edgar Blatchford, UAA journalism professor and eyewitness to the 1964 earthquake
Janice Boylan, editor of The Day Trees Bent to the Ground: Stories from the ’64 Earthquake
Mike Ross, KTUU anchor who worked for WWL-TV in New Orleans, the only station that stayed on the air during Hurricane Katrina
Tay Thomas, 1964 earthquake survivor

Carey: We are obviously very much affected by a disaster today; Redoubt has hindered air travel and kept our guests from getting here. I was in Alaska in 1964 when the Good Friday earthquake occurred. I was a freshman in college in New York State and didn’t find out about it until the next day. 131 people were killed, 4 in Oregon and a few in California. Most people were killed by the tsunami.

The quiz question for today is: What natural disaster produced the largest loss of life in American history?

Edgar Blatchford: What can I say about the 1964 earthquake? What I don’t like being reminded is that it was 45 years ago. It dates me. I remind my mother every once in a while that she was responsible for my near death. My mother was cooking dinner, and dinner was generally served at 5:30. My father was very strict and required us to sit down for dinner. Since it was Good Friday, we decided we’d go down to the waterfront. It was kind of a playground. Pigeons used to roost under the Army docks. My brothers used to go down there with slingshots and target practice on the poor pigeons. I was kind of an environmentalist and I’d go with them and say things like, “Today, save the pigeons; tomorrow, save the whales!” As we were approaching the Alaska Railroad yard and they were switching trains. There was this old railroad man looking out, and he hollered at us to cross where we were supposed to cross. So we went down to the Standard Oil yard. The point is, earthquakes happen quickly. We were walking along, my brother and my dog and friends — and all of a sudden the earth started to shake. And it was fun! The earth started to split open. The trains were kind of dancing on the railroad tracks, moving with the flow, like jelly. My brother started pointing at one of the tanks in the Texaco tank farm, and we watched as it split and the fuel came out. Suddenly there was a huge explosion. What do you do as kids? Run to where the fire is. My father looked out and was watching, and started yelling: “Tidal wave! Tidal wave! Tidal wave!” We didn’t know it was right behind us. They didn’t recover the railroad man’s body. The railroad yard fell into Resurrection Bay. All we could see from the Jessie Lee Home — the school — was Seward on fire. About a third of the homes were destroyed. In the morning, smoke was coming down, carried by snowflakes. My point is, earthquakes are sudden, and I don’t know if we can prepare for one. My suggestion is, if you’re in Seward and the earth starts to move, get to high ground.

Carey: How many people have been in an earthquake that made you feel unsettled? (About half.) How about a flood? (A few.)

Janice Boylan: My personal experience with earthquakes is what we have experienced in Anchorage since 1964; however, I was in a tornado. We had a family come to our home because they had no power, no way to cook. It was a time for people to come together, which is what people did after the 1964 earthquake. Those who had power, water, a floor, shared it with others. Ham operators worked overtime to let people Outside know their families were okay. In Alaska here, we have not only earthquakes and volcanoes to contend with; we also have high winds, flooding… you just never know when a natural disaster’s going to happen or in what form it’s going to happen, and we need to be prepared.

Carey: It seems to be that people who survive disasters want to bear witness. In early Skagway, there was an avalanche that killed a bunch of people climbing Chilkoot Pass. I’ve heard that the number of people who said they witnessed that event would stretch around the Earth twice.

Mike Ross: On August 29, 2005, hurricane coverage hit home for all of us. It changed all of our lives. Our station was the only station in New Orleans that was able to stay on the air during or after the storm. Others were knocked out by the storm; some just signed off and left. We had 130 employees, and within a few hours, about two-thirds of them were homeless. We took great strides to serve our community. As journalists, I think that is our duty. We’d had a close call before Katrina, and we spent an entire year preparing ourselves. That planning paid off for us when Katrina hit. I can tell you from personal experience: If you’re thinking about what you’re going to do when the disaster hits, it’s too late. There are so many essentials that disappear in an instant: How do you fuel your car when the power’s out? How do you get from point A to point B to cover a story? How do you take care of your family? How do you take care of your people so they can keep doing the job? We had backup plans on backup plans. Our basic premise was, we will lose everything. We will lose our facilities. Our question was: How do we keep doing our job?

John Madden: I was asked by outside media the other day: How does Redoubt compare with Pompeii? Not a high point in journalism… What do we do differently now than we did in 1964 or 1989? Look at the monitoring. KLM almost lost a plane in 1989 because they were flying blind. Seconds after these last eruptions, we’re monitoring to see where the ash is, and we’re putting out alerts about aviation safety, maritime safety. This is Tsunami Awareness Week, and we tested the system. Screen crawlers, warning alarms — almost all of them worked, and we identified the ones that didn’t. In fifteen minutes, we contacted everyone we needed to by phone. We have signage, education. We’ve helped 4000 people train in incident command. Mike’s right: If you haven’t thought about it by the time it happens, it’s not going to happen. Look at the airplane that went down in the Hudson River. There was no plan to get a plane out of the Hudson, but every ferry that responded had been trained in incident command. Every radio in the vicinity operated with every other radio. There was a clear chain of command — unified command, with agencies working in concert, not in conflict. We’re planning for the capabilities. We don’t want 1000 plans; we want to have the fundamentals. How do we communicate? How do we maintain resources? How do we sort out the serious from the not serious? Plus education of every household that help will come, but it won’t be instantaneous. We emphasized that, no matter what happens, you may be on your own for a while, and here’s what you need in your kit to make it for seven days. That’s the difference between Alaska and other places. We study other disasters to see what worked and what applicability it may have to Alaska. In Alaska, hospitals may be 500 miles away. How do you prepare the community so that they can maintain and stabilize the situation until help can come in?

Carey: It’s probably not too much talked about, but in Alaska history, one of our greatest dangers was fire. Fairbanks in 1906 was heavily damaged by fire. The engines didn’t work properly, the hoses didn’t work properly… The other example is Nome, where a terrible fire burned so much of historic Nome, and Alaska lost a lot of its documented history.

Lt. Gen. Craig Campbell: Remember when Reagan was shot and the appearance was that the military was taking control? I’m not here to take control. I’m here to talk about the civilian side as a commissioner. How many have lived here since prior to 1989? (Fewer than half.) John’s given you a basic overlay of how we operate. That’s important for us to know about. But one of my concerns is that we are now very dependent upon government providing the answer. That may work in Massachusetts, but it’s very challenging in a state like Alaska. Self-reliance becomes more important in Alaska than in any other state in the country. I spent ten years on the Anchorage Assembly. I was the chairman the evening Mt. Spurr went off. We were sending people out of the library: “Go look at the sky. How does it look? We have to get our business done before the ash falls!” I also worked for George Wuerch, doing development. We rebuilt the Emergency Operations Center in Anchorage. Now I work for Sarah Palin on the emergency management side. Buildings now are built to survive an earthquake like the one we had in 1964. Let me give you a viewpoint from afar on Katrina. It was a massive hurricane that resulted in the breaking of levees and the flooding of a major American city. Small businesses and people weren’t prepared to sustain themselves. They’d become complacent. Land-mobile radio system generators in New Orleans were built below sea level, so they flooded and the system didn’t work. We’re getting like that in Alaska. Our land-mobile radio system will be lost in the event of an earthquake. We need self-reliance. Fairbanks needs to be sure Fairbanks can take care of Fairbanks. Anchorage needs to be sure Anchorage can take care of Anchorage. I believe the majority of Alaskans who have moved up here today do not have that seven-day emergency supply. When I moved here 30 years ago, we bought a generator. You have to be sure you can protect your own family, your own house, your own power supply. If a big earthquake happens, we’re going to have significant power disruption. If it happens to be January, thousands of homes will freeze up and thousands of lives will be at risk. We’re developing a complacency towards nature. We are not Massachusetts. We do not have the infrastructure. The thing I’d like the media to ask is: Are YOU ready for a disaster? FEMA in Alaska has our own sub-region that works directly with my division. I believe FEMA will be here on time. But “on time” will not be an hour or two after things happen. On time could be a day or two. And in that day or two, with bad weather and no protection for individuals to sustain themselves, a lot of bad things can happen. We are the Last Frontier.

Carey: I was in Fairbanks for the 1967 Fairbanks flood. My dad was in denial about the whole thing. He’d say, “Do you know how much water it takes to raise the level another foot?” Well, eventually, the water came to our house. We had an old boat there and my dad got it out and went over to the supermarket and “liberated” some food. Some other people “liberated” the liquor store. The house was surrounded by water, everywhere you looked. My most vivid memories are the smell the next day, because fuel oil was all over the water and it smelled like you were in a diesel distribution plant — and there was a huge liquor warehouse nearby that blew up. We sat on our roof and watched it burn. My dad told me not to worry about it, but I couldn’t help thinking, “You’re the one who told me not to worry about the water!”

Mike Ross: One of the untold stories of Katrina is the success of the evacuation. In Ike, I’m convinced that people would have died on the interstates. In the three days before Katrina hit, millions of people evacuated Louisiana. A lot of those people used the self-reliance Craig talked about. I think the most important thing is, what do we do to get the job done after the disaster hits? The first thing that died after Katrina hit was cell phone coverage. Our station had switched over to NexTel. The only form of communication we had was a 40-year-old UHF radio system. The first thing you have to assume is that your cell phone or BlackBerry isn’t going to work. How do you communicate? How do you keep the information flowing? We were getting word-of-mouth reports. We literally had to send crews out to find out what was going on, and they got chased back to the station by a wall of water. In that year of planning, we operated under the premise that we would lose everything. We reached out to Louisiana State University and arranged that we would have a fallback position if we lost our studio in the French Quarter. We also had a backup studio at the transmitter site, but we had to abandon it for security issues; there were looters at the gate. As the storm was hitting, we switched to LSU in Baton Rouge. It was critical to have those places to fall back to. We had signed memorandums of understanding with LSU and Louisiana Public Broadcasting. I was discussing this with Steve MacDonald the other day, and said, “We have to assume that, if the big one hits, we may lose our building. Where do we go if our building falls down?” FEMA told us, “We’ll get help for you in three days.” Help didn’t come in for six days. We had stockpiles of food at our studio. We had a plan for that. No one’s going to take care of that for you. If you don’t have the stockpiles ready, you’re not going to be able to do your job. You’ll run out of gas — literally and figuratively. You have to think about your family, too. Take steps at home to make sure they have food, water and warmth while you do your job. It’s emotionally draining to wonder if your house is still standing and what’s happening with your wife and kids while you’re trying to do your job. We decided to be as self-sufficient as we could. Even so, we started to run out of food after four days. My cameraman and I survived for 48 hours on peanut butter crackers and a bologna sandwich. The most crucial form of communication was radio. Even if you didn’t have power, you could have your car radio or a battery-operated radio. The radio broadcasters pooled their resources and, for two or three months, did an incredible job of communicating necessary information. You really have to depend on yourselves to keep yourselves going. There is a supreme obligation we all have to do our job.

Carey: A few years ago I was about to have an operation, and as they were about to put me under, I wondered, “I wonder what they’d do if there were an earthquake?” What about our public institutions — hospitals, prisons?

John Madden:
Every hospital in New Orleans had an evacuation plan. But the plan was to go to the next hospital. They had not planned for that hospital to be incapacitated. Who do you rely upon? In Alaska, we don’t have just one plan for one hospital; the plan is integrated across the entire region. Even during Redoubt, government agencies and the hospital community are still communicating about what they need. That raises secondary concerns about the blood supply. What are your anticipated needs? What if you can’t meet them yourself? The hospital industry is now far better prepared. That idea of being able to continue your mission under all circumstances is fundamental. That same thing applies across the full spectrum. First they have to know what their capabilities are, what’s been damaged, and how you quickly stabilize. Prisons is very straightforward — security, perimeters, etc. The first level of aid is always local — other police officers, State Troopers. We have agreements with other states to bring in outside law enforcement officers and empower them here. If you find you can’t do your mission, there are other ways of doing it.

Tay Thomas: (Her home was destroyed by the 1964 earthquake, and she and her two children were trapped on a chunk of moving earth.) I sensed a very strong presence of God and looked up, expecting the end of the earth. Dave’s swing set floated by on one piece of stone; then our greenhouse on another. We finally came to a stop and everything was totally quiet. Then I heard the drip of water from pipes on another cliff above us. Then I heard, more frightening, electric wires, all around us — live electricity, snaking. I told the kids, “Stay away from them.” The only thing I could think, other than how to get up that cliff, was that a tsunami was coming. We were right on the water. We had to get up that cliff. A few minutes later, I spotted our next-door neighbors. The husband was the only doctor of neurology in the whole state, but he never left his post, even though he knew two of his children were missing. They said he did surgery all night with tears running down his face. I saw two of his children on top of a car, and I didn’t think I could handle four children, so I told them to stay there and I would get help. Later I learned that the oldest boy and the baby had fallen into a crevasse and were never seen again. Three men appeared at the top of the cliff and they said, “Stay there; we’ll be right back.” My kids just fell apart, crying. About ten minutes later they were back with blankets. One of them had a coat that he took off and put around my daughter’s shoulders. To this day she hasn’t parted with it. We climbed up and had to get over about four feet of concrete. The men just pulled me over. We ran into a lot of problems that night in terms of communication. I wanted to tell my husband in Fairbanks that we were all right. I knew he’d hear about the neighbor children being lost. There were no telephones — nothing. The radio ran for two days — for two days, she never left her post, reporting, “So-and-so has called in, and so-and-so is missing.” My husband flew himself back and went down to the communications center they had set up. It wasn’t until five in the morning that he finally found us. The other heroes, as far as I was concerned, were the National Guard, who happened to be on manouvers at the time. They were immediately dispatched to all the areas that were destroyed. Nobody would approach an Eskimo guard sitting there with his rifle on his knee. It was a wonderful help to us, because all our treasures were spread out around, and anybody could have taken them. The other heroes were the ham radio operators, because they were in contact with Outside. I would give them a great big gold medal.

John Madden: Resilience and continuity are important. In Alaska, the supply chain is very important, and a disaster now will later be a disaster further down the supply chain. We’re using the volcanic eruption to test some of these things. If you notice, there were some shortages early on of things like masks, but those shortages were resolved because of communication between the government and the private sector. We’ve trained thousands of people.

Mike Ross: While working through Katrina was the most difficult professional experience, it was also the most rewarding. In the darkest time of our city’s history, we were there to help, and that meant more to us than any of the awards we got. Our challenge in Alaska is to be in a position to do the same thing here. The population here is much greater now than it was in 1964. The city will be on its knees in a major disaster. Our challenge is to be ready for it.

Lt. Gen. Craig Campbell: Of the 54,000 military that were in the New Orleans area, 52,000 were from the National Guard. I think that’s missed. The National Guard works with local authorities. We don’t have to go to the president to get National Guard from other states. We’re ready, we’re always available, and one of our primary responsibilities is to serve as local responders.

Carey: The answer to the quiz question is: The Galveston hurricane. They’re still arguing about how many people it killed — 8,000 or 10,000. It had a dramatic effect on weather reporting and, in some ways, produced the modern weather reporting system we have today.

— Maia Nolan

Edgar Blatchford, Janice Boylan, Lt. Gen. Craig Campbell, Michael Carey, John Madden
Photo by Phillip Munger

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