This Is Chance: The Story of the 1964 Alaska Earthquake and the Remarkable Woman Who Magnetized People into Falling Together as Their World Fell Apart
“What is safety, anyway? How can you predict where or when tragedy will occur? You can only learn to live with it and make the best of it when it happens.”
By Maria Popova
We might spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins, but we save them by experiencing ourselves — our selves, each individual self — as “the still point of the turning world,” to borrow T.S. Eliot’s lovely phrase from one of the greatest poems ever written. And yet that point is pinned to a figment — our fundamental creaturely sense of reality is founded upon the illusion of absolute rest.
On March 27, 1964 — Good Friday — thousands of selves in Anchorage, Alaska came unpinned from their most elemental certitudes about reality, about safety, about the thousand small sanities by which we bestill this turning world to make it livable.
At 5:36PM, as the afternoon sun was slipping lazily toward the horizon — that quiet daily assurance that the Earth moves intact on its steady axis along its unfaltering orbital path — street lights began swaying, then flying. The pavement beneath them accordioned, then gaped open, swallowing cars and spitting them back up. Walls came unseamed and reseamed before disbelieving eyes that had not yet computed, for it was beyond the computational power of everyday consciousness, what was taking place.
Buildings rippled “up and down in sections, just like a caterpillar,” in one observer’s recollection, before ripping apart and crumbling completely like the brittle simulacra of safety that buildings are. Inside them, books toppled from their shelves to take rapid turns levitating from the floor, flames engulfed school science labs as chemicals crumpled together, and cast-iron pots of moose stew jumped off kitchen stoves.
The city’s electric grid was snapped and uprooted — in the below-freezing cold, in the descending dusk, all power went out.
When people tried running for their lives, they found their basic biped function furloughed — the Earth hurled each step back at them, tossing their center of gravity like a marble around a child’s cupped hand.
Water levels jumped as far away as South Africa. I picture my grandparents’ well in Bulgaria undulating in the middle of the night as they slept heavily under their Rhodope wool blankets, having celebrated my mother’s second birthday in the hours before Anchorage came unborn.
At 9.2 on the Richter Scale, the earthquake was more powerful than any previously measured — so violent that, as one seismologist phrased it, “it made the earth ring like a bell.” Just as the collision of two black holes ripples the fabric of spacetime with such brutality that it rings a gravitational wave, two tectonic plates had been in slow-motion collision for millennia, building up pressure that finally, on that early-spring afternoon, rang the planet itself and discomposed Anchorage into a level of trauma that would devastate the community, then jolt it into discovering its own entirely unfathomed wellsprings of resilience, solidarity, and generosity.
Driving to the local bookstore with one of her three children was a woman who would emerge as the unlikely hero not only of the community’s survival but of its transformation through tragedy. As their world fell apart, she would magnetize people into falling together.
Genie Chance (January 24, 1927–May 17, 1998) is the protagonist of Jon Mooallem’s uncommonly wonderful book This Is Chance!: The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice That Held It Together (public library). Driving the heart of this scrupulously researched and sensitively told story about a singular event at a particular time in a particular place is the timeless, universal pulse-beat of assurance, suddenly rendered timely to the point of prophetic — the assurance that comes from the lived record of communities surviving cataclysms even more savaging than our own and emerging from them stronger, more closely knit, more human.
In 1964, Anchorage had barely nursed its first generation of city-born citizens and Alaska itself had only just become a state five years earlier. The town existed, Mooallem writes, as “a blotch of Western civilization in the middle of emptiness,” on a patch of land “often disregarded as a kind of free-floating addendum to the rest of America.” Culture itself was in a state of disorientation — months earlier, JFK’s assassination and The Feminine Mystique had shaken the world with their respective dissolutions of certitudes. Anchorage was hungry to pin itself on the map, to self-create an identity and then to assert it with the fiery impatience of a teenager undergoing the developmental stage of individuation — a city that, in one visitor’s account, “reached aggressively and greedily to grasp the future, impatient with any suggestion that such things take time.” Mooallem writes:
That determination made it difficult for those who lived in Anchorage to recognize how indifferently the city they were building could be knocked down — to imagine that, early one Friday evening, the very ground beneath them might rear up and shake their town like “a dog shaking an animal he’s killed,” as one man later described it. Even while the earth was moving, the ferocious strangeness of what was happening to Anchorage was hard for people to internalize or accept. Buildings keeled off their foundations, slumped in on themselves, split in half or sunk. Four-foot-high ground waves rolled through the roads as though the pavement were liquid. A city of infallible right angles buckled and bent.
It wasn’t as though, before the quake, people in Anchorage pictured these things happening and dismissed them as impossible; they just never pictured them. They couldn’t. More to the point: Why would they? Like all of us, they looked around and registered what they saw as stable and permanent: a world that just was.
But there are moments when the world we take for granted instantaneously changes; when reality is abruptly upended and the unimaginable overwhelms real life. We don’t walk around thinking about that instability, but we know it’s always there: at random, and without warning, a kind of terrible magic can switch on and scramble our lives.
When the earthquake churned its terrible magic over Anchorage, Genie Chance — who described herself as “one of those people with an insatiable curiosity who wants to understand in depth what someone else is doing, thinking, or talking about” — was working as a part-time reporter for the local radio station, KENI. Part-time but triple-throttle: When she wasn’t racing on her daily rounds to the police station and the courthouse to report on local crime and punishment, she flew with the air patrol on wilderness rescue missions, trailed army units during Arctic training exercises, captured life on crab boats and in Inuit villages, forewitnessed death on nuclear missile testing sites, and had to be dissuaded from climbing a fire ladder with her tape recorder during a building fire while she was recovering from pneumonia.
All of this she did before rushing home to make dinner for her three children and their father. But she inhabited these two radically different worlds as one extraordinary, integrated self — “a woman who bore the conspicuous burden of always being fully and unflaggingly herself,” in Mooallem’s lovely phrasing — a self outside its time and place, for being a working mother rather than a housewife was already countercultural enough, but being a working mother of unstoppable ambition covered her path with the shrapnel of shock and the indictments of arrogance with which women’s confident competence is often repudiated.
She was the only female newscaster in the state and little seemed to have changed in the century-some since Margaret Fuller became America’s first female news correspondent during a major upheaval as she was paving the way for what we now call feminism. Once, after Genie spent three days reporting on the search effort for a major airplane crash off the coast of Alaska, NBC’s national newscast came calling for her coverage, but requested that a man be sent to redo all of her interviews for a more authoritative air on the air. But her persistent dedication to this essential community-building work soon eclipsed the dismissal and established her as the trusted voice on the radio — trust that threaded the community as a lifetime in the wake of the catastrophe, as fifty-two aftershocks shook the city after the initial rupture. Mooallem writes:
As Anchorage staggered to its feet, each person, or cluster of people, was cut off from everyone else. There was no way to know exactly what had happened, or how thoroughly their world had been jumbled.
This feeling of vulnerability saturated the city. One man, discovering he’d fallen to the sandy bottom of a pit, explained, “You just wonder, ‘Where are you?’ You don’t know if anybody else is alive. Maybe you’re the last man.” Another remembered taking stock of the erratic transfiguration of his neighborhood and assuming that no other part of Anchorage could possibly have gotten hit so badly. Others made the opposite assumption: that the devastation they couldn’t see must be far worse. Both assumptions provoked loneliness. Each generated a slightly different species of despair.
It was reassuring, then, to hear another voice on the radio, talking to you — especially a familiar voice like Genie’s. It urged your imagination outward, encouraged you to picture other people, still out there, listening to the radio, too.
That voice had risked her own life in the determination to serve — having ensured her family’s safety, she had raced back downtown as buildings collapsed around her to assess what was actually going on and how she could help. She had seen things one never forgets — incomprehensible objects that mere hours ago had been bodies animated by human lives and loves and favorite songs — and she had discerned her task: to inform without alarming, to comfort without deluding, to be the steady hand in the small of the back guiding the buckle-kneed and the disoriented survivors toward safety, toward sanity, toward some version of sense-making amid the senseless ruin of their reality.
Genie Chance quickly grasped what our modern media have failed to grasp again and again in times of crisis: that past a certain tipping point of quantity, past a certain threshold of reliability, past a certain pitch level of delivery, facts cease to constellate into information and instead become slippery corpuscles saturating a fog of fright. Genie Chance’s job was choice — she had to perform that taxing calculus of moral judgment, that ultimate curatorial task of choosing what facts to broadcast and what to withhold in order to render people maximally equipped to protect themselves and minimally inclined toward panic, which she knew would hinder all rescue and recovery efforts in what was going to be days, weeks, possibly months of people trapped together in a crippled city. “Mass hysteria would have meant total destruction,” she would later recount.
Stationing herself at Anchorage’s Public Safety Building as night fell on the powerless city, she began working with the police chief, the fire chief, and various officials. As soon as KENI was back on the air with a generator, she began broadcasting the essentials of survival: where to take shelter, how to purify snow for drinking water. She instructed people to limit the use of candles to the bare minimum of necessity — candles were a fire hazard, the city had just evaded a conflagration by what seemed like a miracle, and the water supply system was too savaged to fight a fire outbreak.
She then began collating eyewitness accounts to give people an accurate picture of what had just unworlded them, careful to convey the gravity of the situation without details so gruesome that people would lose hope, still performing the impossible informational acrobatics at the balance-point on the beam between paralysis and panic. Mooallem writes:
Information was a form of comfort. Each stunned, eye-witness account on the radio that night appeared to help people in Anchorage find the contours of this sinister abstraction they were living through — and to locate their places in it.
Within hours, Genie Chance had become the city’s first public information officer. But she soon became something more. Distressed people began turning up at her makeshift desk, bearing the impossible weight of not knowing whether their loved ones were dead or alive. Recognizing the psychological emergency beyond the physical first aid, Genie Chance became the human hub of a vast network of need and began broadcasting these trembling-hearted messages.
“A message to Clyde Wythe at Homer: Your daughter is OK.”
“We have received a call from Joe Fernbeck who said that he’d gotten word on his radio from the oil crews at Beluga and Tyonek. They want their families to know that they are all OK.”
“We have a message reporting that an elderly lady at 216 East Eighth Avenue who lives alone. We have no name on her, but we do have a request for somebody in that neighborhood to please check and see if the sweet lady is all right.”
You could hear the potential death toll in the city gradually ticking down. And with each small declaration of survival that aired, you could imagine a constellation of affirming flames slowly lighting the emptiness outside.
The words of one listener from the remote community of Clam Gulch bellow across space, time, and situation with especially poignancy and relevance today:
It made us who were fortunate realize that no matter what powerful forces nature unleashes, it also releases similar forces in our men and women to cope with them.
By Monday, as Anchorage began stumbling to its feet amid heavy snow and below-freezing temperatures, Genie Chance observed from the airwaves:
Tension is showing on the faces of a proud people. The realization that the Good Friday earthquake will have long-range repercussions on the entire state is beginning to strike at their hearts.
She took it upon herself to steady those hearts. How she did that — how she was in a position to help in the first place, having risen in radio across the personal abyss of depression and the cultural barriers of sexism; how her public service paved the way for her election to the Alaska Senate; how it illuminated what Martin Luther King, Jr. had so poetically termed a year earlier our “inescapable network of mutuality” and how it still illuminates the timeless centripetal forces holding communities together into something larger and more alive than coexisting individuals — that and a great, largehearted deal more is what Mooallem explores in the rest of This Is Chance!, which he ends with a gorgeous glimpse of Genie Chance’s animating spirit.
The week following the earthquake, when her mother wrote from Texas beseeching her to send the children there for safety, Genie had a decision to make — a decision that might have appeared simple to a person of less penetrating vision into the innermost pillars of survival. Beneath that surface simplicity, which rests upon a view of safety as physical security, Genie Chance fathomed the layers of complexity: The very notion of physical security had just been unmasked as an illusion in the first place, in any place; but beneath it, she suddenly saw, there lay a stratum of psychological and emotional security from which we mine the building blocks of our only reliable human shelter. She wrote back to her mother:
I must admit that during that first dark, cold night, as I began to understand the tremendous scope of the problems that would be facing us in the months and years to come, I toyed with the idea of sending the children out on a plane to stay with you until everything settled down. Working there in the headquarters, where the reports were coming in from the survey teams throughout the city, I realized that there could possibly be a real health hazard for some time to come. I realized that the schools might not be able to resume for an indefinite period of time. It looked for a few hours as if the damage had been so extensive to all utilities and streets that even a semblance of normal life could not be resumed for weeks or months.
But this was just a fleeting thought in a weary mind. I would have been ashamed of myself had it not been for the next thought that came so swiftly: We must be together… That night I saw strain, heavy hearts, and fear in people separated from their loved ones by the sudden disaster… As long as we are together, we are confident of the future…
That Good Friday night I knew that we had survived miraculously. And for this reason, there must be a purpose to our lives. Apparently the children must sense this, too. For they have remained calm. They have been fully aware of the emergency, but they have not feared. We are proud that they are such dependable, responsible youngsters. I would not undermine their confidence in the future — in themselves — by sending them away for safety.
What is safety, anyway? How can you predict where or when tragedy will occur? You can only learn to live with it and make the best of it when it happens. These children have learned this — and they are all the better for it. They were in the midst of devastation. And they feel that they are a part of the tremendous task ahead in rebuilding this land we love… The children are not afraid. Their father and I are not afraid. Please, don’t you fear for us.
Mooallem — who previously composed the beautiful, bittersweet, and surprisingly buoyant ecological elegy Wild Ones — reflects on the disquieting confrontation with the nature of reality that the earthquake thrust upon the world it shattered, and wrests from the disquietude the kernel of a larger truth that makes reality not only bearable but beautiful:
What is safety, anyway? Genie seemed to be conceding how randomly our lives are jostled and spun around; that nothing is fixed; that even the ground we stand on is in motion. Underneath us, there is only instability. Beyond us, there’s only chance.
But she’d also recognized a way of surviving such a world. It was what Genie had created in Anchorage that weekend by talk- ing on the radio, and what she planned to stay focused on now: not an antidote to that unpredictability, exactly, but at least a strategy for withstanding it, for wringing meaning from a life we know to be unsteady and provisional. The best she and her family could do was to hold on to one another.
Our force for counteracting chaos is connection.
Published March 30, 2020