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Know the West

Anticipating the next ‘Big One’ in Anchorage

Can an imminent disaster draw tourists to Alaska’s largest city?


The 1964 earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska, ravaged stores and collapsed roadways. Today the region is perpetually expecting the next Big One.
Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Whenever I felt an earthquake, I’d look at the clock. That way, when the quake was announced on the evening news, I could say, “Hey, I felt that one!” Only if the tremors persisted and intensified would I wonder, Is this the Big One? Should I find a desk to crawl under?

In the 20 years that I lived in Anchorage, Alaska, it never was, and I never did.

On March 27, 1964, the second-strongest earthquake ever recorded anywhere in the world struck south-central Alaska, devastating much of Anchorage. During my childhood, in the 1980s, there were few physical reminders of the cataclysm, and the temblors I experienced were too feeble to tip over a vase. But Anchoragites will remind you of the Big One every chance they get — because the 1964 quake was just one Big One. The longer the span of time that has elapsed since the last Big One, the bigger the next Big One is sure to be. Just picture Mother Nature silently cocking her rubber-band gun, stretching it farther … and farther … and farther. …

The next Big One, locals say, is guaranteed to make the 1964 quake feel like a coin-operated vibrating bed in a budget motel.

Meanwhile, the sense of anticipation has become vital to the local economy because … well, to be honest, Anchorage has little to offer the curious wayfarer but the promise of its own imminent obliteration.

An improbably large city in a state synonymous with wilderness, Anchorage is nevertheless a remarkably unremarkable place. Famously dissed by writer John McPhee as just another excruciatingly mundane American metropolis, Anchorage can boast neither prestigious universities, nor sports teams of consequence, nor the birthplace of any scientific or cultural luminaries. It is even denied the honor of being the state capital. Alaska is a tourist destination, but Anchorage isn’t. Thousands of vacationers pass through the city each summer, but that’s all they’re doing — passing through. The Big One is as close as Anchorage gets to having an iconic tourist draw like San Antonio’s Alamo or Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell.

So Anchorage makes the most of its Sword of Damocles. Every tourist shop is a shrine to the Big One, a temple where tectonic plate subduction meets shameless commerce. The obligatory mugs, T-shirts and ulu knives vie for attention with seismically themed novelty items — vibrating pens, vibrating paperweights, the infamous “Earthquake-in-a-Can.” You name it, it vibrates. Downtown Anchorage is always buzzing like a giant bachelorette party.

But even as they cash in on their ineluctable doom, Alaskans know that it’s imperative that they never give the impression of complaining about it. They have a reputation to maintain, after all. Alaskans are supposed to be impervious to cold, loneliness, sunless winters that drag on for 11 months of the year and the incessant menace of anthropophagous critters that make Jurassic Park look like a petting zoo. So you find a quarter-million people staring down impending oblivion with unflinching resignation. Anchorage is the fatalist capital of the universe.

Once, as my father and I walked down Fifth Avenue’s shadowy canyon of modernist skyscrapers, Dad pointed to the sheets of glass and cement siding stretching into the sky above our heads and remarked that if the Big One struck right now, it would all come crashing down on us. He used the same tone in which he’d ask me where I wanted to go for lunch.

The window in my mother’s office in her firm’s glass-sided high-rise faced the office building across the street. It was not an inspiring view, but she said she was lucky. Puzzled, I asked why. She led me outside, where we walked around to the back of the building, or as close as we could get to it. At our feet, a precipice plunged to the churning breakers of Cook Inlet, where seagulls wheeled distant as comets. Above us, the shiny tower rose from its vertiginous perch like a futuristic lighthouse. Mom remarked matter-of-factly that, though her co-workers on this side enjoyed stunning views of Knik Arm and Mount Susitna, when the Big One finally hit, she’d outlive them — by a few seconds, anyhow.

Now I live in southern Idaho, a place better known for starchy tubers than natural disasters. When people find out that I grew up in Alaska, they often ask if I miss it. Sure, sometimes it would be nice to call my boss and tell him I’m going to be late for work because a moose is napping on my front doorstep. But, hey, at least here in my sagebrush paradise, I don’t have to deal with the perpetual prospect of the earth splitting open and sucking me down into its gravelly bowels.

Instead, I can just sit back, relax and wait for the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera.

James Thompson teaches online English and Humanities courses for Stratford University. He lives in southern Idaho.