It was 25 years ago yesterday that the Exxon Valdez accidentally “fetched up” hard aground off Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, where the single-hulled tanker was “leaking some oil, and, ah, we’re gonna be here for a while,” according to Captain Joseph Hazelwood’s infamous radio call to the Coast Guard.
And it was 50 years ago this Thursday that the largest earthquake and tsunami in U.S. history killed over 100 Alaskans. Anchorage was crushed by the quake itself and Kodiak’s harbor was destroyed by the resulting tsunami. Valdez was wiped out.
Valdez was rebuilt on higher ground, Kodiak’s harbor was also rebuilt and Anchorage today shows little damage from the 9.2 quake of 50 years ago.
Recovery from the spill has been more protracted and more difficult. Some species of fish and other wildlife have recovered, others—including herring—have not. Human recovery, particularly for fishermen who got hosed by the Supreme Court decision in Exxon’s favor a few years ago, continues to be a bitter legacy.
The Exxon Valdez disaster could have been avoided, of course. Capt. Hazelwood could have been directing the vessel from the bridge, sober, and the Raytheon collision avoidance system could have been working properly. Today, though, Prince William Sound’s tanker management system is the best in the world.
Like other natural disasters, the Good Friday Earthquake could not have been prevented. The shifting of tectonic plates is not something that can be affected by oversight committees or legislative initiatives, although buildings and bridges and such can be and have been engineered to withstand violent shaking.
Let’s hope the 25-year cycle of cataclysm doesn’t repeat itself in 2039.