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Rebuilding on Unstable Ground

Published On: Mar 27 2014 08:00:00 PM AKDT

Anchorage resident explains why development continued on unstable ground, despite opposition. 


After the earthquake, Anchorage community leaders considered moving the city to the hillside. Several homeowners in Turnagain even jacked up their homes and moved them to school awaiting a decision to move.

Brooke Marston remembers those discussions. On the day of the earthquake, he was driving home after work to his Turnagain neighborhood when the shaking started. Marston first noticed it when a car coming toward him pulled over. Marston said the man driving put his arm around his passenger.

“I thought it was a strange time to be romancing,” Marston said.

Then he saw the trees waving back and forth. Marston kept driving toward his home when he had to stop. “I realized that my driveway was no longer there,” he said.

Like his driveway, Marston’s home had slumped, leaving his home at the base of a new hill. Instead of driving to his front door, he had to get a rope to meet his family. Marston tied a rope to a tree, then around his waist to reach his wife and children. Marston said his house sat at a 45-degree angle. The family was shaken, but fine.

The house was intact, just moved off of the foundation. Marston said to him there was no question, he wanted to rebuild in Turnagain. Others weren’t so sure. The lawmakers considered jacking up all the houses in Turnagain and moving them to the hillside.

Marston said that course of action would have been too expensive.

“It would be impossible,” he said. “It would have killed the town as far as my feeling is.”

Alaska lawmakers looked to Washington for recovery money.

Marston rebuilt using a loan from federal aid funds. Before he started construction, he needed permission from a federal agency. When he got the telegram giving him the go-ahead, Marston started work immediately.

Marston said he was working on his foundation when a man wearing a tie came by the job site.

“When people with a white shirt and tie came on a construction job, you know trouble is there,” he said.

The man told Marston to stop construction. Marston said the man told him the last sentence had been left off the telegram.

The man was from the federal government and wanted Marston to know the telegram he recieved didn’t actually grant him permission. Marston was to wait for approval from the Army Corps of Engineers. Marston told the man he answered to a different authority now that he’d taken out a loan. To Marston, this news came too late. He had already taken out a loan. He was in the middle of construction. Marston told the man construction wasn’t subject to the corps of engineers.

“Now it’s subject to my mortgage,” Marston said he told the man.

Marston continued building and kept a detailed documentation of his progress.

“And nothing more was said,” Marston said.

His rebuilt home is across the street from where his homestead cabin had been built. His home before the earthquake was in what is now Lynn Ary Park. Marston sold the homestead cabin to a local repairman. The same house still sits in a new location a few streets away.

Marston said the town was saved by prominent Anchorage businessmen who made commitments to build right away. One of those businessmen is Wally Hickel whobecame the state’s governor two years after the quake.

Hickel built the Captain Cook Hotel in downtown Anchorage. The building was constructed using technology that would help the building move with the earth, should another quake occur. The construction site is right on top of a graben – or a place where the soil formed a small crevasse during the quake.

In an interview in the 1970s with a public television station, the governor said, “I don’t want to raise a bunch of hooey and cry at the public about there might be some instability at the Captain Cook.”

“You don’t stop the world because you have an earthquake,” Hickel said. “You can design for them. I think this town is a perfect example.”

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers performed several studies on the area. Marston kept the newspaper article published about 3 years after the quake that declared the area stable.

“People went on with their lives,” Marston said.

State Seismologist, Mike West said that areas of Turnagain still aren’t ideal to build on. West said often the worst ground has the best view.

“It's very, very tempting to build in those locations,” West said. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Those who rebuilt in the area remark that an earthquake like the one in 1964 will happen only once every 300 years. For a home with a beautiful location that uses engineering to mitigate earthquake loss, many residents say it’s a risk they’re willing to take.