Putting your hands around a disaster as complete as the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill or the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake is a tall challenge. When it comes to something as large as those events, it's often best to turn to the experts.
Experts weigh in on Alaska's Disaster Week 032614 NEWS 1 Capital City Weekly Putting your hands around a disaster as complete as the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill or the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake is a tall challenge. When it comes to something as large as those events, it's often best to turn to the experts.

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In this April 1989 photo, an oil-soaked bird is examined on an island in Prince William Sound.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Story last updated at 3/26/2014 - 1:36 pm

Experts weigh in on Alaska's Disaster Week

Putting your hands around a disaster as complete as the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill or the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake is a tall challenge. When it comes to something as large as those events, it's often best to turn to the experts.

On March 20, the Capital City Weekly hosted a question-and-answer session with a panel of scientists, historians and experts on the two disasters whose anniversaries we observe this week. The panel session was held on Reddit, one of the world's largest social networking websites and attracted questions from users around the world. The full set of questions and answers can be seen at, but we've included a sampling of the best questions and answers below.

The panel:

• Angela Day, doctoral candidate and author of "Red Light to Starboard: Recalling the Exxon Valdez Disaster"

• John Cloe, Alaska historian

• Sara Bornstein, Alaska State Library historical collections librarian

• David P. Schwartz, geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif.

• Gary Fuis, geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif.

• Andrew Goldstein, curator of collections at the Valdez City Museum

• Cindi Preller, tsunami program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Alaska Region

• Joel Curtis, Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Juneau

• Toby Sullivan, director of the Kodiak Maritime Museum

• and James Brooks, editor of the Capital City Weekly newspaper and author of "9.2: Kodiak Island and the World's Second-Largest Earthquake."

Question: The 1964 earthquake is something that those who live in the mainland U.S. don't usually hear about, other than rare, vague references.

What was the impact of the change of altitude of the state, if there was one? Were there any positive results from the quake - say, an increase in regulations, a new method of detection, etc?

How deeply remembered is this earthquake in Alaska, and was the public memory of the event comparable to Hurricane Katrina in the years following the quake?

Gary Fuis: The impacts of the 1964 earthquake were profound in both understanding a) how the earth works and b) in understanding how to minimize effects from shaking, liquefaction, and tsunami inundation.

Briefly, a) The theory of plate tectonics was in its infancy in 1964, but the huge movement (30-60 feet) of the Pacific plate beneath North America in Alaska confirmed plate collision/ subduction.

b) The USGS response was to establish in 1964 a new office/program of earthquake research, now called the USGS Earthquake Science Center. Research includes all aspects of earthquakes, including how often, how big, and where quakes happen, and also what are the effects of shaking on buildings.

All this info is fed into building codes that panels of engineers establish in the various quake-prone states, including Alaska.

Toby Sullivan: The 1964 earthquake had a huge effect on Kodiak, Valdez, Seward, and other coastal Alaskan communities, effects which are still very visible today.

The earthquake itself did little damage in Kodiak, but the 10 tsunami waves which followed over the next 10 hours destroyed the downtown business district and sank or grounded dozens of fishing boats.

Seward and Valdez were similarly damaged, and Valdez was actually relocated to a new site several miles away because the land under the original town had subsided and became vulnerable at high tides.

Kodiak's downtown was bulldozed away afterwards and rebuilt with a new street plan. Even 50 years later, the earthquake and the tsunamis are a still large part of the communal memory of Kodiak.

Joel Curtis: Of the 115 deaths attributed to this catastrophe, 106 of the fatalities were officially attributed to tsunamis.

In Seward alone, 12 were killed and 100 reported injuries. The tsunamis were both "local" and "distance" there, and these occurred during the lower part of the tide cycle.

One sailor was running for his life along the Standard Oil docks, was thrown in the water, hit on the head, suffered internal injuries, then was picked up and thrown onto the deck of the oil tanker in port. He lived to a ripe old age having an adventurous life. His name was Ted Pedersen.

Question: Prior to Exxon Valdez, what kinds of safety measures existed - both on the tankers as well as land based reaction - to deal with these kinds of spills?

Was the scope of the damage simply due to unpreparedness for a spill of that magnitude, or were there mistakes leading up to it and in the response that might have prevented it from reaching the levels that it did?

Andrew Goldstein: Dennis Kelso, then-commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, famously called the industry's spill cleanup plan "probably the biggest piece of maritime fiction since 'Moby Dick.'"

Much of the problem was related to the vagueness of Alyeska's recovery plan, and an inadequate stockpile and accessibility of recovery equipment. There are a myriad of other factors affecting the collision of the Exxon Valdez with Bligh Reef, however. Here are just a few:

• Reduced, overworked, and under-regulated tanker crews. Third Mate Gregory Cousins had put in very long hours prior to the grounding, and Helmsman Robert Kagan was inexperienced.

• Sub-par Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Monitoring. The Service's staffing in Valdez had been reduced regularly to meet service-wide Congressional budget cuts. Originally, three persons staffed the Vessel Traffic Center; at the time of the accident, only one watchstander was assigned. Additionally, the Coast Guard's radar equipment was inadequate.

• Relaxed pilotage requirements. Marine pilots originally controlled the tankers on board from Port Valdez to Hinchinbrook Entrance about 80 miles away. This requirement had been slackened so pilots only took the vessels through the narrowest part of the tanker lanes, about 20 miles from the oil terminal and well before Bligh Reef.

• The use of single-hulled tankers rather than double-hulled ones in transporting large quantities of oil.

• It's also worth noting that the spill remained relatively local until about 4 days later, when a wind storm began to cause a wide drift of the surface oil. The preceding days had been characterized by much finger-pointing and passing of the buck between numerous agencies such as state and federal government, the oil companies, and Alyeska, with a lack of clear leadership and uncertainty about the best recovery methods. Had response not been delayed by a leadership crisis, the oil might have been contained much more efficiently.

Sara Bornstein: While working on the Exxon litigation project at the Alaska State Archives, I found documents relating to these questions. One document just had a quote on it: "I don't think you could spill enough oil in Prince William Sound to harm the commercial fisheries and shellfish." - Chevron spokesman Clayton McAulffen quoted in Alaska Advocate, April 7, 1977.

This basically sums up the attitude. Nobody thought the extent of the spill was a possibility. I remember reading that drills for spill containment were not done regularly because of the unlikeliness of the possibility. Once it did happen, supplies and crews had to be found.

Angela Day: In 1991, a Congressional investigation revealed internal documents that suggested Alyeska and its owner companies weren't prepared to fulfill obligations for cleanup as outlined in their own contingency plan. George Miller, chair of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, wrote a letter to Judges Holland and Sporkin outlining his committee's findings.

The letter stated, "In the course of this investigation, Alyeska has provided me with documents which indicate that Exxon and the other owner companies which control Alyeska: (1) knew that Alyeska could not effectively respond to an oil spill in Prince William Sound; (2) failed to make improvements in Alyeska's oil spill response capabilities; and, (3) secretly decided they would not respond to an oil spill in Prince Sound in the manner prescribed by Alyeska's Oil Spill Contingency Plan."