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Lessons learned from Alaska’s ’64 quake

By Lauren Maxwell 6:19 AM February 13, 2014

Experts say Anchorage has become safer over the years

ANCHORAGE – On March 27, 1964, Alaska experienced the greatest earthquake ever recorded in North America.

One hundred and thirty people were killed, and damage was estimated at more than $300 million from a quake that measured 9.2 on the Richter scale.

Could it happen again, and would the damage be as bad? Experts say strong quakes are bound to rock our state, but stronger building codes can make a big difference when it comes to whether those buildings will stand.

Anchorage is built on shaky ground and one of the worst areas is along the Turnagain Bluff. In 1964, 75 homes were destroyed on the bluff when the ground beneath them gave way and sent houses tumbling toward Cook Inlet. Sharen Walsh, a top municipal planner, said homes built there today are held to a higher standard.

“The issue out here is ground failure,” Walsh said. “So you have to design for that. You want to keep your house together, even if the ground underneath it starts to move.”

Walsh said homes in earthquake hot spots like along the bluff and in Bootlegger’s Cove require design by a structural engineer. Many have special foundations that are built to move. Walsh said most buildings in Anchorage that were constructed since the 1980s meet tough design standards meant to withstand a quake.

But despite the lessons learned, there are still some cautions. Buildings aren’t required to be retrofitted to the latest safety standards because of the enormous cost involved. Some see that as a problem. Another issue? People who rode out the ’64 quake unscathed may become complacent and believe they are no longer at risk.

Experts say every earthquake is different. Where it strikes and how the ground responds could make all the difference when it comes to damages. They say it’s important to remember what happened to Anchorage once could happen again, but hopefully with a better outcome.

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