Always Look for the Helpers
A lot can be learned from a trailblazing woman who helped her community during a natural disaster more than 50 years ago
By Ben Timmermans, Representative
On March 27, 1964—Good Friday—the Great Alaskan Earthquake ripped through southcentral Alaska, tearing the city of Anchorage to shreds. The magnitude 9.2 earthquake devastated the surrounding area, causing massive damage and resulting in the death of around 130 people.
The epicentre of the quake was about 120 kilometres east of Anchorage, and the resulting tsunami hit the west coast hard. Some waves from the quake eventually hit as far south as Antarctica.
A quick search brings up haunting pictures of broken homes, boats stranded inland, and once main roads almost unrecognizable after the devastation. The most shocking part is that more people did not lose their lives.
Genie Chance was an American news anchor for KENI, a local radio station in Alaska. Minutes after the quake, Genie ran to the police station to gather reports on what had happened. When she arrived, the police chief gave her orders to broadcast public safety announcements. Not only did she deliver, she also helped coordinate public rescue efforts, like ordering diesel fuel and asking electricians to assist with restoring power to the city’s infrastructure.
Genie stayed on the air for over 24 hours, providing critical updates and information that helped local authorities lead the rescue effort. She served as a calming voice throughout the ordeal, giving residents a sense of hope that help was on the way and reassuring the listening public that with everyone’s help they would emerge from the disaster. Finally, the rescue efforts started to bear fruit as helicopters arrived with aid that Sunday.
Genie was rightfully celebrated for her tireless efforts. Her voice was the only thing that many residents of Anchorage heard over that Easter weekend. Many folks were stranded in their homes, unaware of the fate of their friends and family and feeling isolated and scared, while outside the temperatures were well below zero with snow still covering the ground.
Following the recovery effort, as the town slowly returned to normal, an interesting thing happened. Movie theatres were packed, churches were full, and people gathered in any way they could to share stories, laugh together, and be among people they knew and loved.
As friends and families reconnected, the power of being among loved ones helped the citizens recover from the isolation they had experienced because of the quake. Physical damage aside, the mental health of the population recovered only after they could emerge from their homes and celebrate with one another.
I can only imagine how exciting it will be once we are able to go to a hockey game with friends or travel across provinces or countries to gather with loved ones and share our stories—in-person! The celebration will be long-lived and joyous.
Our rescue day will come, albeit a little less dramatic than that Sunday in 1964. As more of us get vaccinated, we will hopefully be able to get back to gathering together again very soon.
Just as Genie did her part by staying calm and doing her job, we can too. Now is the time to come together as a community and do our part to help with the recovery effort. We’ve languished through these last months, waiting for the COVID crisis to be over and yearning for the return to normal, or as close to prepandemic normal as possible. And that day will come.
When I look back at historical disasters like the Great Alaskan Earthquake and how those affected by these tragedies recovered, it gives me hope, especially as we endure the 15th month of lockdowns and increasingly restrictive public health orders. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was fear and anxiety, but there was also hope as many folks coordinated grocery pickups and care packages for housebound seniors and the immunocompromised.
Over the course of the pandemic, the media frequently spoke of fights over toilet paper and increased mass hysteria, but many citizens were trying to help one another. As Mr. Rogers famously said, “Always look for the helpers.” If you peer beyond the headlines, you can see the helpers—and they are not always in positions of authority. Many of them are neighbours, friends, and regular citizens, just like Genie Chance.
We all need a reminder to be a helper by doing our work, showing love to our neighbours, and giving encouragement when we can. This does not mean we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be frustrated or upset with circumstances from time to time. Venting is helpful and healthy. But we can’t stay in that space.
Let’s continue to be helpers to one another as we wait for our time to gather together once again.
To learn more about Genie Chance and the Great Alaskan Earthquake, listen to episode 259 of the 99% Invisible podcast.