Earthquake Shakes Port of Anchorage

Port of Anchorage (file image courtesy Alaska Alliance)

Published Jan 26, 2016 7:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

A powerful 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck southern Alaska early on Sunday, and its effects were felt for hundreds of miles from the epicenter. The quake struck at 1:30 AM, at the foot of a mountain chain just west of Cook Inlet, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reported. The Fairbanks-based Alaska Earthquake Center reported a series of aftershocks reaching magnitudes of up to 4.7.

At the Port of Anchorage, officials say that the shaking didn't cause any significant damage, but it raised concerns about the ability of aging docks to withstand a more serious quake.

Port director Steve Ribuffo told local media that "had that epicenter been closer to Anchorage, I don’t think we would be sitting here talking about it today, if we were even able to stand here and talk . . . it is a point of fact that the condition of the pilings supporting this dock is very bad."

“It needs to be upgraded so that not only can we provide the users with a modern facility to keep up with where the industry has gone, but a safe survivable one that will be here for 75 years." Ribuffo said. "Circumstances could have been entirely different had there been a ship tied to the dock” and container operations under way, he added.

Anchorage has set aside over $100 million towards the port's renovation and hopes for an additional $300 million from the state, but given Alaska's multibillion-dollar budget deficit – due to falling oil revenue, which makes up the bulk of Alaska's tax base – state politicians say that more aid is unlikely. The port's cost would be much more than the $200 million in revenue expected from the state's first income tax in three decades, a controversial move proposed by Governor Bill Walker in December. Historically, rather than paying state taxes, residents have received a yearly dividend payment from Alaska’s permanent fund, giving each a share of the state’s long-term petroleum revenues. 

With revenue so far down, even one of Anchorage's own representatives doesn't support state funding for the city’s port. “At this point in time, a bond means debt, debt means growth to the operating budget, and I know myself personally am not inclined to add to the operating budget,” said Representative Lance Pruitt (R-Anchorage).

The quake was significant but not unusual in this seismically active state. Alaska records anywhere from 80 to 100 quakes daily, most too small to notice. But memories remain of the Good Friday earthquake of 1964, the second most powerful in recorded history at a magnitude of 9.2 and a duration of fully four minutes. It ruptured whole neighborhoods in Anchorage, changed seabed contours, triggered landslides and tsunamis, and raised the elevation of areas near Kodiak by 30 feet. Tsunami damage was reported as far away as Hawaii and Japan.

The current Port of Anchorage docks and facilities were completed in 1961 and survived the Good Friday quake without significant damage.