This is Chance!

Did you ever feel like a near expert on a topic, only to read a book that makes you realize what an ignoramus you really are? That is how I felt when I finished Jon Mooallem’s book, “This is Chance!”

I arrived in Alaska a few years after the March 27, 1964, Great Alaska Earthquake, when the horrors were still vivid in the state’s collective memory. That and the fact that I continued to live here for the next 50 years means I had absorbed enough facts about that disaster to bore an entire dinner party to sleep. Yet Mooallem’s engrossing, exactingly detailed book taught me literally dozens of facts about what is also known as the Good Friday quake. And while he was at it, by using the life story of Alaska legislator Genie Chance to structure the book, he also showed me how little I remembered about that (and I say this with admiration) feminist troublemaker who drove many male legislators to distraction.

The outlines of this natural disaster are simple: measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale, it is still the largest quake ever recorded in North America and the second largest recorded worldwide. The quake, and resulting tsunami along the Alaska coast, took 128 lives total. It shook the Space Needle, 1,400 miles away in Seattle, and was felt as far south as parts of California. By the time it finished in Anchorage, close to five minutes after it started, downtown streets had cracked open and entire sections were several feet lower than before. Not to be outdone, the unstable silty soil in the prestigious Turnagain Arms ridge slid into Cook Inlet below, taking homes and humans with it.

What Mooallem excels at is digging out the minutiae lost because everyone is paying attention to the main event. How many people are aware that, lacking enough police to keep order and rescue survivors, an employee of the public works department found some bedsheets, tore them into arm bands, had a parking attendant use her lipstick to write POLICE on them, and handed them out to anyone who wanted to be “an officer of the law.” No one kept track of the names or numbers of newly deputized cops. Later it became clear that many of them were transients who’d raced to the public safety building for shelter after running out of nearby trembling bars; some had criminal records.

Or this tidbit: As about a million gallons of airport jet fuel spilled over into the Army installation nearby, it pooled around a pile of missiles that had been scattered about. Turns out, those 40 foot missiles were equipped with nuclear warheads.

And finally, another favorite. When the upheaval in the tectonic plates began, a man in Pasadena, California, knew immediately what was happening. Mooallem describes him as, “ ... an odd duck — a rumpled intellectual and avid nudist who wrote many abjectly bad love poems about women who were not his wife.“ But 63-year-old Charles Richter was an inventor, so enamored with his work that he’d had a Richter scale installed in his house. He and his wife were in their living room listening to a concert, when Charles drew his wife’s attention to the fact that there was a big earthquake going on someplace.

The author does the same excavating beyond the known facts when focusing on Genie Chance. A young mother of three dragged to Alaska by a husband searching for a new start when his Texas business failed, Chance found her purpose as a radio personality. Already well-established at the time the quake hit, immediately after the town stopped shaking, she commandeered a microphone and became the voice of calm — not only in Anchorage but all over the United States and parts of Europe where her broadcasts were replayed. While there were many other people who also went sleepless for more than 24 hours in order to pitch in wherever needed, it was Chance’s reassuringly familiar voice that instilled a sense that normal life would resume. (Not that everyone believed that as that spring more than 4,000 moved out of Anchorage, the exodus beginning literally the day after the destruction.)

The weeks and months after the disaster brought Genie Chance more fame, in the form of national magazine and newspaper articles, live interviews, and journalism awards. She parlayed her notoriety into winning elections, serving eight years as a legislator before being voted out.

What not many people knew, however, was that her effervescence masked a hard personal life — some of which helps to explain her determination to enact legislation that protected battered women and the disabled. She divorced her first husband, who had become a physically abusive alcoholic. One son died of cancer, the other struggled with substance abuse. Her mother descended into dementia. Genie’s second husband had several heart attacks and then a stroke, so her life was reduced to being his caretaker. And by the time he passed away, Genie was beginning to show the first signs of her own dementia. She died in the Juneau Pioneers Home in 1998; she was 71 years old.

The earthquake over and Genie Chance dead, the author pivots to the quake’s contribution to research. Until then, the conventional wisdom had been that after a catastrophe, the community would be overwhelmed with looting, lawlessness, and utter disregard for other people. In fact, that is precisely the opposite of what happened after the 1964 quake. Residents rushed to the aid of others even at risk of their own lives, food and other resources were shared among residents, and order was quickly restored. Interviewed by the sociologists who had arrived on the scene while the aftershocks were still going on, residents uniformly attributed this cooperation to the unique Alaskan spirit.

This belief in the positive response after a natural disaster being due to some special quality of the residents, has been repeated in every subsequent disaster studied. As Mooallem says, in “ ... disaster after disaster ... communities tended to interpret their own levelheaded and altruistic conduct as exceptional — New Orleanians being New Orleanians, Puerto Ricans being Puerto Ricans” even though at least 50 years of research have taught us that no matter what the location, communities react similarly.

Which, depending on how you look at it, could be disappointing (turns out Alaskans are not some unique species), or it could be heartening (most humans are innately helpful and cooperative when disasters happen).

This is not a perfect book. At times it wanders off on tangents about more peripheral people. There is an inordinate amount of time spent focusing on the 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Our Town,” and how the quake and Genie Chance’s life illustrate the play’s themes of death, eternity and failing to appreciate the small things in life. And, finally, at times Mooallem interjects himself into the narrative, describing his appearance and behaviors in the third person. It is distracting and just plain weird.

But those are minor irritants. The writing was compelling, and the amount of information presented staggering in its thoroughness. And the timing of publication was perfect, reminding us that when a disaster hits, the ordinary among us behave in extraordinary ways, and together we will find a way back to some sort of normalcy.

Linden Staciokas is a freelance writer, gardener and cook who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at dorking@acsalaska.net.

“This is Chance! The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice That Held It Together”

By Jon Mooallem

Random House

315 pages

$28