51 years ago today…

On March 27, 1964, at 5:35 pm,residents of Alaska were heading home from work, making dinner for their families, getting ready to attend services (it was Good Friday).  At 5:36 pm, a 9.2 megathrust earthquake violently shook the state. All over Southcentral Alaska, buildings collapsed, man-sized fissured appeared in the earth. Some houses literally slid into the sea. Fuel containers caught fire. Trains derailed.

Within an hour, tsunamis struck coastal regions and small islands that were home to dozens of canneries and small fishing towns. Local tsunamis caused by calving ice walls hit almost immediately; tectonic tsunamis from father out in the ocean shortly afterward reached as high as 50 feet when they slammed into the island of Kodiak. One wave completely wiped out the village of Chenega, killing a third of its residents.

My novel-in-progress, THE VOLUME OF WATER, is set in Kodiak and the surrounding islands in 1964, and I’ve done a lot research into the devastation caused by the quake and tsunamis. It’s terrifying to think that something could happen so unexpectedly and literally wipe out your way of life forever, but that’s exactly what happened.Some villages were so badly devastated that the residents chose to move elsewhere rather than try to rebuild. The town of Port Lions, on Kodiak Island, got its name when villagers from the decimated island village of Afognak relocated there – with the help of the Lions Club.

Here’s an old photo of the town of Kodiak before the earthquake and subsequent tsunamis:

11080348_10153199688298588_8128959915429678759_oAnd after.

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11096488_10153199688293588_504800570514641664_oAlaska’s governor Bill Walker has declared a day of remembrance, with state flags lowered to half-staff in honor of the more than 130 Alaskans who lost their lives because of the quake and tsunamis. Today is officially “1964 Alaska Earthquake Remembrance Day.”

For those who lived through it, and those who lost loved ones, every day is remembrance day.

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The first five minutes

Sturdy-leather-work-boots2In researching personal accounts of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake for my novel THE VOLUME OF WATER, one of the things that stood out to me was the amount of damage that occurred in the first few minutes of the quake.

Fortunately, the quake, a 9.2 megathrust which was the largest ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere, occurred during the day – at about 5:30 pm. It happened just after people had vacated office buildings in the busy Downtown Anchorage area; experts have stated if it had happened an hour earlier, hundreds more may have been killed.

I cannot imagine how much worse the devastation would have been if the initial quake had occurred at night. At least in the daytime, people can see debris falling toward them, they can see the earth literally coming open under their feet. In the daylight, we can find and hold onto our loved ones. If we have to, we can see to grab out coats and boots before we run out of a collapsing building or home.

Anyone living in the area of the Pacific Northwest known as the Rim of Fire knows that another “big one” could be just around the corner. Most prepare to some degree for such an event. However, since disaster can strike anywhere at anytime; it is important to be able to react quickly in those first few minutes. How many of us are prepared to do that?

Last year, to commemorate the anniversary of a local fire, I did an article for the Frontiersman Newspaper in which I interviewed the spokeswoman for our borough’s emergency preparedness department . What I expected was the same information everybody gives out – have canned food on hand, stash some candles and blankets, lots of water, etc. Instead, the first thing that came up was … tennis shoes.

“Say you’re sleeping, and a quake happens,” she said. “Maybe the power goes out. Maybe it’s the middle of winter. Would you even be able to find your shoes? Your house keys? Your front door?”

Um … no. Probably not. One likes to hope, if disaster must strike, that it doesn’t happen when it’s dark or 20 below outside, but then, I live in Alaska – what are the odds? That thought haunted me.

We are a large, homeschooling family. That’s code for “our entry way is usually a hot mess of random shoes, socks, mittens, hats, projects, books of all shapes and sizes and the occasional sharp Lego toy.” If I had to get my family out of the house in a hurry, especially in winter, we’d all be in deep trouble.

The preparedness spokeswoman pointed out that if a large quake occurs, it’s possible – even likely – the floor will be covered in broken glass (and, of course, Legos). So it’s a good idea to stow a pair of tennis shoes (sturdy shoes that can be slipped on easily) under each bed. Some people keep a large ziplock bag under the bed with their shoes, a light jacket, flashlight, maybe a whistle, and other must-have items (like an inhaler if you have family members with asthma, which we do). You can even secure the bags to the frame of the bed so they don’t get pushed back out of reach.

I am working toward the goal of going to bed at night with an entry at least organized enough that everyone could find their own coat and boots with a flashlight. We’ve designated specific places in the house for those flashlights, too. I now sleep with a pair of shoes or boots next to my bed that I can slip on in an instant. I keep my iPhone charged at night, and I have an app for it that provides a quick flashlight. I keep it and my keys on my nightstand, an arm’s reach away. My older kids know how to open the garage door if the power goes out, so if the house becomes unsafe and it’s too cold to remain outside (which it is much of the year), we can pull the car out and at least be out of the elements.

I read enough first-hands accounts of the devastation that occurred after the 1964 quake, and the tsunamis that hit the coastal regions afterward, to believe that those first five minutes can be key to survival. Maybe you don’t have earthquakes in your neck of the woods, but I bet you have fires, or tornadoes, or riots, or something else equally dangerous and unpredictable. Having a pair of shoes and a plan to survive the first few minutes of an emergency is easy and inexpensive, and it might make all the difference to you and your loved ones.

Do you have a “5-minute bag?” Is there anything I’ve forgotten? If you have any tips or advice, please let me know in the comments section! Thanks!

Four minutes and 38 seconds

As March 27th approaches, it’s hard to get earthquakes off my mind. Below is a great short film by the U.S. Geological Survey that reveals the scope of the biggest earthquake ever to hit the Northern Hemisphere, the Good Friday Quake that hit Alaska on March 27, 1964.

The ’64 quake lasted over four minutes. That’s a ridiculously long time for an earthquake. Four minutes is how long it takes Elsa to sing “Let It Go” in the movie Frozen. It’s how long hard-core, Olympic-level runners run to reach a mile. In four minutes on a typical day in the United States, 30 babies are born, 38 people die, and 4,080 Big Macs are eaten. Four minutes in a 9.2 earthquake is forever.

Watch the video. When you’re done, check your watch. The video below – four minutes and four seconds long – is shorter than the quake itself.

An anniversary

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The anniversary of the 1964 Good Friday Quake is coming up. On March 27th, it will have been 51 years. That’s a lifetime really, but the scars from the destruction are still visible throughout Alaska. It just bears remembering that we should never take anything for granted; it can all be wiped away in an instant.

Writing: A life of discipline and hard work

In my last post, I noted that one of the best (and least fattening) ways to survive the querying process with a wee semplance of sanity intact is to keep on writing.
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Toward that end, I’ve been working on a new project. Two new projects, actually. One is another novel that’s been stewing in my brain for a long time, a historical fiction set during the time of the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake. Ever since we moved to Alaska (almost a quarter century ago – how is that even possible?), I’ve been sort of obsessed with it, and the tsunamis that wreaked major destruction all over the state. I’ve been doing research for months now, and I’ve even unearthed some pretty cool firsthand reports that to my knowledge have never been published. Being what writerly people refer to as a plotter (as opposed to a pantser – one who writes by the seat of their pants and goes back to fix plot elements later), I spent months planning and tweaking and plotting before I even wrote a word. But I must say it feels so good to be writing again.

The other project I am working on is a middle grade book about a boy whose stuffed moose accidentally gets dropped off at the Goodwill. I wasn’t planning to write a kid’s book, but this one basically slammed into my head – the whole thing – while I was thinking about something else. What can you do? I said to myself, “Self, stop it. You do not write children’s books.” And my brain said, “Oh yeah?” and WHAM! Up popped the idea for a sequel. Then a third book. Alright, already.

The more I thought about, the less crazy it seemed. For one thing, a million years ago, I was a kid. Who loved books. Some of my very favorite books of all time are middle grade books (more on that later). For another thing, I have five kids who love books like heroin, so I have done my fair share of reading to them.

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So now my brain is on overload with wanting to write. And what happens? Summer happnes.

If you don’t live in Alaska, you may not understand the burning desire to get outside the moment actual sunlight happens. After seven months of snow and dark, we get a little manic about it. Our last two summers were rather crummy. But this year – wow. It’s been gorgeous. Perhaps if I had a nice windowless attic to work in, I could buckle down and get these books written. But no. Look at this:

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This is the view from where I write.

I thought perhaps if I went outside to work on the balcony, I might get something done. But it just gets worse when you go outside.

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Outside, you can smell the fun-ness and feel the warmth and hear the kids playing. A dragonfly flew by and laughed at me. I think he also called me an idiot, but I’m not sure.

The bottom line is this: being a writer means making tough decisions. It means being serious about your work and disciplined about your writing schedule.

Therefore, I’ll be up late tonight. Writing. For now, I’m headed outside to do this …

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Because summers in Alaska are way too short not to.