Valdez Rises: A Town’s Struggle for Survival After the Great Alaskan Earthquake
By Tabitha Grégoire. Sapphire Mountain Books, 2021. 325 pages. $ 19.95.
A visitor to Valdez today may very well look around and say (or think), “Wow, this place has a spectacular setting, but why is the town so characterless and unattractive? Of course, the pipeline years, when Valdez became the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, played a role in that. The bigger story, now told in detail by Tabitha Gregory, has to do with the relocation of the entire community after the devastating Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964.
Gregory, who now lives in Spokane, Washington, lived in Valdez for 22 years and was director of the Valdez Museum. She had wondered why, in a museum devoted to the history of the city’s gold rush, the earthquake, the construction of the pipeline and even the Exxon Valdez oil spill, there was no was almost nothing to tell how the whole town had been moved. . She set out, with intensive archival research and interviews with longtime Valdezans, to retrieve the untold story.
Almost 60 years after the events, she has produced a definitive and readable text which is also instructive for our present time.
The author livens up the story by supplementing her research-based narrative with the personal stories, told in their own words, of key characters, as well as excerpts from newspaper articles and columns of gossip, letters and other primary sources. What could have been a dry account of what happened and then what happened becomes a story driven by personalities and anecdotal details. Vintage photos, maps, drawings and footnotes all add to the effect.
The first section sets the scene with the introduction of several characters who each recount their experience of the earthquake through oral history, interviews and other documents. The facts of the earthquake, its extensive damage to infrastructure, the deaths of 32 local people and the immediate consequences are described. The history of the city, which dates back to the days of the Gold Rush and continues, fills this section. We learn the character of the city through the lives of its intrepid pioneers and the challenges of living with extreme weather conditions.
The next section, covering the remainder of 1964, chronicles the arrival of aid (so many agencies with so many acronyms that residents collectively called them “the government people”) and all the confusion and chaos of the disaster response. Geological studies quickly determined that the city’s location on an outwash delta of fine sediment was inherently unstable and continued to slide out to sea. Fortunately, it seemed, there was an alternative. A few pioneer families owned a large, flat plot 4 miles to the west, resting on gravel. The owners were ready to donate it to the city. (The “donation” became something less than that and resulted in years of litigation, but at the time seemed a perfect and altruistic solution.) A decision was made to relocate the entire city and a town planner was hired. to develop a model community. with separate commercial and residential areas and a park strip.
From today’s perspective, while obtaining a building permit can take months and improving a road can take years, things in Valdez have evolved at an impressive rate. Meetings – many meetings – have taken place, plans drawn up, properties assessed, construction started. A new school built in steel was operational in the fall. (Today it is home to the community college.) A commercial wharf and port soon followed. Families began to build new houses on lots distributed according to an agreed system, while others moved and modernized existing buildings. The federal deadline for the complete move was October 1, 1967, by which time everything that was left on the old site was to be razed and burnt.
All did not go well, of course. The city council, with non-stop meetings and important decisions, has faced exhaustion, infighting and a very high turnover. Some people resisted until the end and had to be kicked out. Neighbors fought over property lines and with contractors. A significant portion of the families have left Valdez completely – although new families have moved in, attracted by construction and other jobs. In February 1968, the Old Town was finally abandoned and the New Modern Town was operational, with 225 housing units and 40 commercial and public buildings.
One thing that did not happen was the preservation of the Old Town and its heritage (other than what the residents took with them.) To success but ultimately fizzled out. Today, only the foundation of its post office remains of the old town.
Residents of the new town barely had time to settle in before there was talk of an oil pipeline. Gregory notes that “Valdez executives quickly recognized the opportunities. His administration and board had just completed a massive, labor-intensive bureaucratic project and had significant experience working with state and federal agencies, members of Congress, and engineers. When the city won the terminal, Gregory writes: “The memories of the relocation epic quickly faded. The pipeline tsunami overwhelmed and crushed the years of upheaval, tedious process, exhaustion and loss as well as the hope, tenacity and resilience “that resulted in the new city.
“Valdez Rises” should appeal to anyone interested in the Valdez community and its people, local history, planned communities and how communities function after disasters. In her final section, where Gregory examines “lessons learned,” she discusses the new reality of resettling communities due to climate change and other environmental disasters. The story of a town forced to relocate in a sudden emergency shows that with community commitment and government help, it can be done. Planning ahead and carefully executing a move can make the job easier, if ever easy.