An earthquake that was unlike all others the state had ever experienced in recorded history struck Alaska on 27 March 1964. The 9.2-magnitude earthquake radically changed the very shape of the land, with 50,000 square miles rising as much as 30 feet or falling by eight feet. It was the strongest earthquake to ever strike North America and second strongest only to a 9.5-magnitude earthquake in Chile on 22 May 1960.
Despite the devastation and destruction in Alaska, stories of courage, community, rebuilding, and resilience emerged in the aftermath. The response and recovery organized by local, state, and federal governments and supported by the private sector, volunteers, and the public set a new standard for response and recovery efforts across the nation.
Commemorating a Catastrophe
Fifty years later, in commemoration of that catastrophe, the State of Alaska will conduct the largest, most complex exercise in its history, from 27 March through 3 April 2014. The Alaska Shield exercise will use the same geology as the 1964 event but will place it in today’s built environment, population density, technology, and supply lines. The consequences of a similar event, of course, will be more severe and far reaching.
As in 1964, volunteers, civilian and military agencies, businesses, and the public will join the State of Alaska in the exercise. Together, they will test their plans, capabilities, and partnerships and measure these against the successes of their predecessors in 1964. Thirteen cities and boroughs will conduct tests of their capabilities for medical surge, sheltering, hazardous material response, level of care for those with functional needs, and public messaging. More than 30 state and federal agencies will test their abilities to work together to support the needs of the communities and the priorities of Alaska Governor Sean Parnell.
Beyond these traditional objectives, they will test many innovations of recent years. The state formed several task forces for broad mission areas such as energy, transportation, housing, health and medical, and public safety. These task forces document how things work in peacetime, what can go wrong, and what will be the consequences. They then work across the groups to understand the interdependencies. These task forces will be part of the Joint Field Office (JFO) to address the problems and facilitate the decision-making process.
The JFO will fully integrate with state and federal leadership and staff, volunteer and private sector organizations, and others with vital authorities, assets, capabilities, and commodities. It also will provide concurrent work on response operations, Stafford Act recovery, and long-term recovery of the economy.
A National Capstone Event
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal partners designated the Alaska Shield exercise and all the supporting events as a National Capstone Exercise. The Capstone intends to test the national capacity to support states during catastrophes.
In this exercise, participants will challenge many assumptions, test many policies, and validate many partnerships and plans. More importantly, though, they will learn if, in the half century since the Alaskan Earthquake of 1964, the organizations, plans, frameworks, and doctrines now in place have improved the effectiveness of the nation in the face of the catastrophe.
In his report to President Lyndon B. Johnson in September 1964 on the recovery efforts in Alaska, Senator Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico (chair of the Federal Commission on Reconstruction) stated, “Theirs is a story of which all Americans can be proud.” Even with modern ways and means, the nation has to continually work hard to earn the kind of praise the State of Alaska and the nation as a whole received in 1964.
John W. Madden
First appointed by Governor Sarah Palin in January 2007, John W. Madden continues under Governor Sean Parnell as the director of the Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management for the State of Alaska. His state service follows a distinguished career in seven federal agencies. He has held leadership positions in many national organizations. He is the past president of the National Emergency Management Association, co-chair of the National Mass Care Council, executive council for the Regional Consortia Coordinating Council, and a member of the National Homeland Security Consortium.