In a Disaster, Humans Can Behave … Pretty Well, Actually

The earthquake struck at 5:36 pm. The ground rolled and shook and crumpled and bucked and didn’t stop for more than four minutes. Its epicenter was about 75 miles from Anchorage, Alaska, and it released so much energy that wave levels rose in Antarctica, on the other side of the planet, almost 24 hours later. Nearby, in Seward, Alaska, oil spilled into the ocean and ignited, so that the post-quake tidal wave engulfed the town in a watery wall of flame. That apocalypse, which struck on March 27, 1964, was the biggest quake ever recorded in the United States, and soon after the ground stopped moving, an Anchorage radio reporter named Genie Chance started talking.

In his new book This Is Chance!, writer Jon Mooallem chronicles how, over the next several days, Genie’s voice essentially held the city together as Chance passed along news and updates, relaying messages about who was safe and who was still missing—broadcasts that got repeated and amplified by ham radio operators down into the lower 48 states. It’s an inspiring portrait of one woman who embraced and mitigated a crisis situation; a beautiful exploration of how people tell stories on the radio, on stage, in books, and generally to each other; and a suddenly very relevant and optimistic description of how humans act when confronted with sudden, world-changing circumstances.

WIRED: Who was Genie Chance?

Jon Mooallem: Genie worked at the Anchorage radio station KENI part-time, and this was in an era when, if you were a woman in broadcasting, at least in Alaska, you were expected to have a women’s show where you would talk about fashion or homemaking. But Genie, when she got the job at KENI, pushed herself and pushed the station and kind of muscled her way into a roving reporter gig. She would start the day at the police station, running down all the crime stories from overnight, and then drive around Anchorage and the greater Anchorage area. She had a little VHF unit in her car so she could do live reports. She was really just covering the life of a city, every day.

When the earthquake happened, where was she?

She was driving with her son into town to run an errand before all the stores closed for the Easter weekend. And she immediately had this instinct that she should be covering this, so when the shaking stopped, she just proceeded to drive around town. First to the police station and on from there, as she heard or saw more stories developing. She was just trying to collect as much information as she could so that when the station came back on she’d be able to give a report, because there was no one else really in the field at that time.

Jon Mooallem is the author of This Is Chance: The Shaking of an All-American City, a Voice That Held It Together. Buy on Amazon.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

In the book, you talk about how she really has to think about calibrating reporting the facts (but not some of the really horrific things that she saw in the immediate aftermath), as well as providing assurance and instruction. And she has to filter out misinformation on the fly too. Not malevolent information, but just people hearing something from their cousin’s brother kind of thing.

It took me a while to realize how literally in the dark they were until the sun came up the next morning. People tried to get some kind of comprehensive survey of the damage, but they just really couldn’t do it. Sunrise on the second day was really the first moment when everyone could deal with the same set of facts.

And that’s, I guess, what makes it very dissimilar from today: It was a physical problem, they couldn’t see anything. We’re also obviously struggling today: We’re putting obstacles in our own way to having the same set of facts.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired