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“Good” Friday?

Good Friday – the Friday before Easter, has not been so good for the residents (human and otherwise) around Prince William Sound, Alaska. Two disasters, 25 years apart, continue to leave their mark on the area.

Damage to houses from landslides in Turnagain Heights in Anchorage

Damage to houses from landslides in Turnagain Heights in Anchorage

The first, which occurred on Friday, March 27, 1964, was the Good Friday Earthquake, also called the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964. At 9.2 on the moment magnitude scale, this was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America, and the second-most powerful in the world. I remember watching a documentary on this earthquake many years ago (sorry, I can’t remember the name), where a man was describing the scene during the 4 to 5 minutes of shaking: “You think of the ground as being solid. I looked out, and saw the ground rolling like the waves of the ocean.” A woman tearfully described seeing a fissure in the ground open up, her son fall in, and then the ground close up again. However, the earthquake had a very low fatality rate due to the sparsely populated area where it occurred, and the fact that most buildings in the shaking zone were made of wood. Most of the 131 deaths actually resulted from the ensuing tsunami, which killed people in Alaska, Oregon and California. [1] One of the highest fatality areas was the dock area of the port of Valdez, where a section of land 4000 feet by 600 feet slid into the ocean. [2] The ground was permanently raised in some areas by as much as 30 feet, and lowered in other areas by eight feet.
Downtown Anchorage after the quake

Downtown Anchorage after the quake

The town of Portage on the Turnagain Arm was lowered to below sea level, and so had to be permanently abandoned. The village of Chenega was destroyed by the tsunami and 23 of the 68 inhabitants killed. The downtown area of Anchorage experienced heavy damage. Seeing the second story of some buildings at street level makes it a wonder to me that more people weren’t killed. The effects of the earthquake were felt worldwide: “Seiches, a sort of sloshing of water back and forth in a small body of water like a boat harbor or swimming pool, were observed as far away as Louisiana where a number of fishing boats were sunk. Oscillations in the height of water in wells were reported from as far away as South Africa.” [1] An asphalt storage plant near Valdez was destroyed, spilling an unknown quantity of asphalt into Prince William Sound. With the area inundated with relief efforts pertaining to the earthquake and tsunami, no particular clean-up effort was attempted for this spill. Today, remains of the asphalt spill are mixed with remains of another spill [3], which brings us to the second Good Friday disaster.
Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef

Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef

On March 24, 1989, the supertanker Exxon Valdez was navigating Prince William Sound (outside of normal shipping lanes to avoid ice) when it struck Bligh Reef and spilled 11 million of its’ 53 million gallons of toxic, unrefined crude oil into the sound and fouling 1,100 miles of coastline. [4] This spill was particularly egregious because it happened in a wild and beautiful setting and because of the culpability of the captain, third mate and Exxon itself in causing a completely avoidable disaster. In the aftermath of the spill, Exxon did not take the high road, dragging its’ feet in the cleanup and contending and delaying any payout for punitive damages, claiming they were not appropriate in an “accident”. More than 20 years later, the effects of the spill are still being felt in the area, with some wildlife species still not having recovered. [5]
Vox’s Take: Sadly, the infamous Exxon Valdez Spill is dwarfed by the Deepwater Horizon Spill of 2010, which spewed an estimated 218 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. [6] Given the Exxon example, and the ability of huge corporations with their teams of lawyers to avoid accountability for their misdeeds, its seems unlikely that British Petroleum (BP) will end up paying for more than a small fraction of the damages.


[1] The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, Alaska Earthquake Information Center
[2] The Great Alaskan Earthquake & Tsunamis of 1964, by Thomas J. Sokolowski, West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, Palmer Alaska
[3] The Good Friday Catastrophes in Prince William Sound, Alaska, U.S. Geological Survey Energy Resource Surveys Program
[4] Exxon Valdez oil spill, The Encyclopedia of Earth
[5] A Report on the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Spill from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (EVOSTC), Information About Alaska
[6] Deepwater Horizon oil spill, The Encyclopedia of Earth

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