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Powerful memories, powerful computer helped create tsunami documentary

Producers of the recently aired documentary Ocean Fury: Tsunamis in Alaska, focusing on the tsunamis that devastated coastal Alaska after the 1964 earthquake, tapped two powerful Alaska resources: the Alaska Region Supercomputer (used to produce animations to help explain the physics of tsunamis), and the collective memory of survivors.

More than 100 Alaskans were swept to their deaths when multiple tsunamis hit Alaska shores after the 1964 earthquake. The magnitude 9.2 temblor was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America. The tsunamis wiped out Valdez and destroyed much of Seward, Kodiak, Whittier and other Alaska communities.

Forty years after that terrible night, memories remain vivid for those who witnessed the destruction. Some of their impressions are shared in the half-hour documentary, which aired statewide this past week on AlaskaOne Public Television and is also available on video through Alaska Sea Grant.
The documentary was co-produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program, the UAF Geophysical Institute Alaska Earthquake Information Center, and the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Residents of Seward, Valdez, and Kodiak begin the program with vivid eyewitness accounts of what they saw when the black waves of March raked Alaska’s shores in 1964.

Bob Eads of Seward describes how he and his brother saw the first tsunami enter and circle around Resurrection Bay as they tried and failed to outrun it in their Ford pickup. Immersed in the wave and pummeled in darkness, Eads tells how they realized they were about to die. But miraculously, their truck held up and the wave deposited them far up-shore. They kicked out the windshield and managed to escape what they thought would be their coffin.

Doug McCrae of Seward describes how he got his wife and baby onto the roof of their house just as the tsunami struck, destroying the house next door and tearing his house from its foundation, sending them on a “wild, wild ride.” He recalls being afraid that tree limbs were going to scrape his family off the roof as his house careened through the woods. Their nightmarish ride ended with the house wedged between some cottonwood trees. Throughout the night, more tsunamis swept through Resurrection Bay while McCrae and his family stayed stranded in their pitch-black attic, soaked and cold. They staved off a second brush with death, this time from hypothermia in the freezing temperature, by wrapping themselves in fiberglass insulation until McCrae could go for help the next morning, slogging through slush, ice, and debris.

Tom Gilson of Valdez describes how he stood in horror and disbelief as the Valdez dock disintegrated while visitors and workers on the dock frantically ran back and forth trying to save themselves, finally disappearing into the sea. All but one person died.

Not all the stories are so tragic. Ruth Brechan of Kodiak tells how she helplessly watched as the tsunami surge carried a man in a small, spinning skiff down the channel and out to sea. She assumed the man had perished. A year later in a Kodiak bar while recounting what she had seen, a man spoke up from across the room, saying “Ruthie, that was me in that skiff!”

Patricia Williams of Seward describes a moment of humor with her mother as they stood together, looking out upon the tangled field of debris that used to be the Seward waterfront. She said, “Well mom, there goes your All-American City,” and they laughed.

Kurt Byers, communications manager at Alaska Sea Grant, conceived and led production of the documentary. “The idea is to capture some of the thoughts of the people who witnessed one of the world’s most impressive natural disasters. Most of us weren’t here in 1964, so I wanted to interview people who were here and saw the incredible force of the tsunamis. Once I started contacting these people and listening to their accounts, I knew we had a compelling story,” Byers said.

State-of-the art 3-D video animations created by UAF art faculty member, Miho Aoki, show what causes tsunamis and how they behave. The program also describes Sea Grant and NOAA research at the UAF Institute of Marine Science and the Earthquake Information Center at the Geophysical Institute that is used to create maps that project where tsunamis will flood towns under different conditions. In recent years, officials in Seward and Kodiak used the maps to plan evacuation routes and worked with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to help win Tsunami-Ready designations for those communities. Similar efforts are under way in other Alaska towns.

Fairbanks, Alaska
The program also describes how the tsunami warning system operates in Alaska from the NOAA West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer and points out how coastal residents should react when an earthquake occurs.

“We want to drive home the point that we need to be prepared for the next time tsunamis hit Alaska. We also want to let people know how UAF and government agencies are working together with state-of-the-art computer technology to help save lives,” Byers said.

[Read more at Alaska Sea Grant]

| Posted 10.25.04 at 12:58 am

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