Wednesday, April 29, 2020

This is Chance by Jon Mooallem

This is Chance by Jon Mooallem is an interesting book about the 1964 Good Friday earthquake in Anchorage, AK, with focus on Genie Chance, a part-time local news reporter who valiantly served as the the focal point for reporting, coordination, and communication in the period right after the quake.

Chance had moved to Alaska from Texas with her husband and three children five years prior and was downtown on March 27 with her thirteen-year-old son when the quake struck at 5:36PM, lasting four and a half minutes. It had a magnitude of 9.2 on the Richter scale, the most powerful quake recorded at the time and still the second most powerful. Felt far outside of the Alaskan epicenter, it shook water in wells around the world and triggered a tsunami that killed eleven in Crescent City, OR.

Chance was near the Fourth Avenue Theatre headquarters of her KENI station when the quake struck and saw the devastation that occurred, taking down the year-old JCPenny department store and causing a large section of road to drop some ten feet. She then took her son back home, saw her family safe, and went back downtown and worked. Chance started broadcasting from a VHF shortwave radio while in the Public Safety Building, as she later said, talking pretty much constantly for the next thirty hours. The power was out, but KENI able to put out a radio broadcast and Fire and Police Chiefs turned down her offer for them to speak directly via the airwaves, rather they had her serve as the voice to the people.

She served as a hub of both recovery efforts and connection, letting people know when and here help needed, and giving notice of people that were safe. Additionally, phones were out in Anchorage, but the broadcast was going to Fairbanks, and people there communicating with the lower 48 to pass along word that the city did need help, but hadn't been completely destroyed. A big part of the book was also the tales of how just like Chance did, many people stepped up with kindness and heroism, getting things done. The latter third of Mooallem's effort covers some different territory, including a local production of the play Our Town, the remainder of Chance's life, and disaster experts who visited Anchorage in the aftermath of the quake and saw the brave and orderly behavior of people that they'd witness after disasters elsewhere.