Be prepared now for earthquakes and other emergencies
The Government Hill School was devastated by the 1964 earthquake. (File photo)
Posted 8/23/2012 Updated 8/23/2012
by Chris McCann
JBER Public Affairs
8/23/2012 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Snap your fingers. There's a buildup of pressure - friction between the surfaces of your fingers. Then the pressure overcomes the friction, and is released in the form of vibrations - sound waves.
That, in a microcosm, is an earthquake.
In Alaska - especially along a line which runs along the Aleutian island chain, then in a mild arc that sweeps up the Turnagain Arm and toward Fairbanks - we experience earthquakes multiple times a day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Most of the quakes are so tiny they can't be felt. There are regular temblors around the 5.0 mark; strong enough to be quite noticeable and maybe knock an object or two over.
And rarely, Alaska gets shaken by something serious. In fact, the strongest earthquake ever in North America and the second-strongest in history took place in Alaska in 1964.
The temblor itself lasted only three to five minutes, but combined with the tsunami, it took 128 lives and caused about $331 million in property loss, according to the USGS website. The tsunami alone killed 113 people.
Anchorage was hard-hit; 30 blocks of dwellings and commercial buildings were damaged or destroyed. Schools were devastated, especially by landslides in Turnagain Heights and Government Hill.
Tsunami waves damaged the West Coast even in California and in Hawaii. Seiche action - imagine waves caused by sliding back and forth in the bathtub - caused minor damage along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana.
In short, earthquakes can be devastating, and the frequency of quakes in Alaska can lull people into a false sense of security.
So what can you do to prepare for an earthquake - or any emergency, for that matter?
There are many ways to ensure that you're adequately prepared for whatever Alaska throws at us.
First, secure your home. If you own your home, make sure water heaters are strapped to studs in the wall to prevent them being shaken loose. Flexible connectors on water pipes and gas lines can allow static fixtures to bend instead of break.
Regardless of your living quarters, store breakables in cabinets that can be held closed with childproof latches, strong magnets, or other closures. Don't hang heavy or fragile items like mirrors above beds or places where people often sit, and ensure there are no heavy, breakable, or top-heavy items on headboards. Being awakened by a teddy bear falling on your head during a quake is fine; a marble bookend is less pleasant.
If your television is top-heavy or on a high shelf, consider using cable ties to secure it, or mount it to the wall. Store heavy items in low, stable places.
If you're in bed when an earthquake hits, stay where you are; you're more likely to be injured on the floor by falling or broken objects.
If you're indoors, get under a strong object like a desk or a table. According to www.ready.gov, doorways are no stronger than any other part of a home, so don't run to a doorway. Stay away from windows and anything that might break or collapse.
If you're outdoors, get into an open area, away from trees and buildings if possible.
If you're in a vehicle, pull over slowly and park - away from power lines, overpasses, and other dangerous items, and wait.
If you're trapped in debris, knock periodically in sets of three. Rescuers are listening, and signaling in threes is the most common "distress" sign.
Anchorage itself - as well as the valley - are relatively protected from tsunamis by the geography of the area. However, seiche waves and other things may still damage areas near the water.
If you are camping or visiting an area like the Kenai peninsula or Valdez, however, where there is a serious danger of a tsunami, get to higher ground immediately. The 1964 earthquake created waves up to 76 feet high, and every second is critical.
Prepare now for emergencies
Most importantly, prepare your family and home for emergencies.
Have adequate food and water for at least a couple of weeks - if there is a loss of electric service, that means water treatment plants may go offline. Bathing, cooking and cleaning, as well as hydration, get much more difficult. Have adequate amounts of water for your family, and if it's bottled water, use it and replace it periodically. For example, if you have ten cases of water, drink a case and replace it now and again. While any water would do in an emergency, the stuff that hasn't been sitting for three years will be much preferable.
Store adequate food - and food that you would normally eat. It's great to have beans and rice socked away, but in a high-stress situation, do you want to be stuck eating it for three weeks or longer if new shipments can't get to the grocery store? Don't rely on the refrigerator or freezer.
Dried, canned and other long-lasting foods are a good bet, and don't forget the condiments and other niceties if you can afford them. Bags or boxes of pasta are great, but if you don't have some kind of sauce, they get old. Canned chicken or tuna is also a good standby, but buy mayonnaise to make salad. Many companies make shelf-stable MRE-type meals with heaters; they're a good addition, but as any service member who's been deployed to a forward location can attest, MREs are not something you want to eat for an extended period.
Earthquakes can damage gas lines, so ensure that there are no gas leaks as soon as possible after a quake. If there is a leak, evacuate as soon as possible.
Heat may be a challenge; without the electric grid, even the nicest house can become uncomfortable quickly. In many cases, having a generator and fuel is a good idea.
If you have a woodstove, fireplace, or other alternate heat source, use it once in awhile and make sure everything's in working order, and keep a supply of fuel.
Make sure you have flashlights and extra batteries. Battery-powered lanterns are also a good choice. With the short days of winter in Alaska, artificial light is almost a necessity. Oil lamps, candles, and other such items also work, but require more attention to prevent fires.
A good first-aid kit is critical, as well as a book on first aid. Beyond the usual adhesive bandages and antibiotic ointment, stock it with some "serious scenario" items.
A supply of any necessary prescription medications, rotated regularly, is important. Gauze pads, elastic bandages for wrapping, a penlight with a pupil gauge, butterfly bandages, a tourniquet and clotting compound will probably never be used - but if you need them, you'll be glad to have them.
Read the instructions and familiarize yourself with the items before there's an emergency. Keep a flashlight and batteries in the kit, and store it in a location the whole family knows.
Prepare for your pets as well - have travel kennels, and make sure your pets have identification (microchip or tags) at all times. Keep a supply of food for them as well.
Lastly, a "bug-out" bag for each member of the family is something to keep in mind. If there was a fire, tsunami or other emergency that required you to leave home immediately, you would want some necessities - a change of clothes or two, any medications you need, important documents (birth certificates, DD-214 forms, marriage certificates, and so on), a supply of food and water, string or parachute cord, baby wipes for hygiene, and a small knife are good to start with.
Have an emergency plan
Your family may do fire drills - which are important. But what if there is an earthquake when you and your spouse are at work and the children are at school? Where will your family meet up?
If an earthquake happened in the Prince William Sound, it could sever communication lines on the sea floor and take down cell phone service and landlines to the Lower 48.
Consider getting a ham radio license to communicate in an emergency.
(Editor's note: information for this article was compiled from a number of government sources.)