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Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act of 2014 - Motion to Proceed

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Madam President, I rise today to remember the Great Alaskan Earthquake, which struck 50 years ago today on Good Friday, March 27, 1964. Over 100 Alaskans died in the earthquake and the resulting tsunami. Entire coastal towns were literally wiped off the map.

I was very young--only 2 years old--but I remember my family telling stories as I was growing up and showing pictures. In those days it was not like we see today--pictures on a computer--because there was none of that existing. I remember in our family of six we always had slideshow night. We had these little slides my mother would put in this carousel, and off it would go and we would be reminded of all the vacations and things we went on, but we would also see these slides about what happened in the earthquake in 1964.

We were lucky. We lived in East Anchorage in half of a small apartment complex, and the only things that broke in our house were these three swinging lights that went back and forth because our house was built on gravel soil and was very strong and sturdy, in many ways, in its development. But when you look back at the houses on Third Avenue that literally disappeared or Fourth Avenue that collapsed downtown, it was a different story, or around Turnagain, the community out in West Anchorage, that literally fell off and sank.

Today I am honored to join my colleague Senator Murkowski--who I know was on the floor earlier--in cosponsoring a resolution marking the tragic yet important event in our history and thanking those who helped us survive and recover. In those days we had limited access anyway, but when there was an earthquake, especially in a small town or community, the first responders sometimes couldn't get there because of the uniqueness of the situation from the earthquake. But every Alaskan, every first responder, everybody who was available got down to the business of doing everything they could to help people in need. We were coming out of a winter--still cold and yet spring, what we would call a spring winter day.

Alaskans know the importance of tsunami preparedness and warnings and making sure we are prepared for what can happen. Today we are proud to host NOAA's National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, AK. I have been there, and it is the most amazing technology, to see what we can do and what we can see or sense through the sensors and other scientific equipment we have to tell us when a tsunami may be occurring or the magnitude of the tsunami. We monitor on a 24-hour basis with scientists.

The tsunami's impact was felt, from our earthquake, as far away as Hawaii, California, and Washington. That is why today I join Senator Cantwell and Senator Schatz in introducing the Tsunami Warning and Educational Reauthorization Act for 2014. This bill would improve NOAA's Tsunami Warning Center, bringing supercomputing power to the tsunami modeling. It would ensure that all coastal weather forecast offices are better prepared to issue tsunami warnings.

The bill also ensures that coastal communities will be more tsunami-resilient through the National Tsunami Hazardous Mitigation Program. It ensures that communities understand tsunami risks, planning to minimize damages, and are ready to bounce back quickly after the damage occurs.

The bill also recognizes the critical role that advancing our understanding and technology through scientific research plays in meeting the tsunami threat.

This bill was originally envisioned by the late Senator Inouye. I have been proud to pick up where he was unable to continue on an issue I know is critical in his home State.

Fifty years ago Alaska was a young State with a bright but uncertain future. We still had foreign fishing vessels coming in and taking our fish just a few miles off the coast. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the energy it delivers was just a dream. After the damage from the quake and tsunami, there were serious questions from outside whether Alaska could survive. Keep in mind that this was only a few years after becoming a State. But Alaskans already knew the answer. They knew we would rebuild and become stronger, and we have. Alaska is now the Nation's Arctic energy storehouse and feeds the Nation with sustainable seafood stocks. I know the Presiding Officer understands the value of fisheries and that they are an incredible element of our food inventory and storage for our country. Alaska is a State that is important in this regard, as is the State of Massachusetts.

But we must still be very vigilant against the threat of earthquakes and tsunamis. That is why I introduced this bill, joining again with Senators CANTWELL and SCHATZ in this endeavor. We encourage its swift passage, as it is important to make sure, when it comes to these issues, that no matter where one lives, safety is protected because the devastation is incredible.

Let me end on another personal note. When I think of growing up in Alaska--someone born and raised there--and living in East Anchorage, I can still remember growing up and my dad thinking about where he bought land to build this house, and this apartment building was on incredible soil. But years later, when I became mayor of Anchorage and sat on the city assembly, I remember the great debate on building codes and earthquake capacity and stability and making sure buildings were designed right.

I remember the Federal building, which is now city hall--and I was on the Anchorage Assembly then--and the great debate came up as to whether we were going to renovate or move or something else in regard to the location. But we decided we wanted to stay downtown to keep downtown vibrant. Well, the building was built during a time when it would probably not withstand an earthquake of the magnitude that occurred in the 1964 earthquake.

I remember when we vacated the building and they stripped the building down and left the shell. I walked in to take a tour of the building with the developer. He was showing me what he called the shock absorbers--these incredible columns within the building that, if an earthquake hit, not only would they try to absorb it, they would help the building move up or side to side, absorbing the impact of the earthquake and preserving the building, ensuring that the investment and lives would be saved. To me, it was the most amazing thing because in the old days--as I said, when I grew up--we just put the buildings together, slapped them up, and thanked God we had a home to live in during a cold winter. So the technology has advanced significantly so as to ensure safety in an area that is clearly an earthquake zone.

It is not uncommon for me to be back home and be at a meeting in a hotel or giving a speech in a ballroom or sitting in a home with someone and having a conversation and an earthquake kind of comes through. It is always amazing to me that if I am there with visitors from out of town, they get a little nervous. But as Alaskans, we know we have improved our building codes, we have improved our warning systems, and we have continued to make sure we can minimize or mitigate the damage from those natural disasters that could occur.

Again, this bill reauthorization on tsunamis focuses on that. We saw a whole city or town washed off the map--gone--because of the power of a tsunami.

So today I appreciate and remember the history of Alaska and the uniqueness of being there during times of growth and also times of tragedy, but today being part of legislation which in an odd way comes full circle: As a 2-year-old experiencing an earthquake, to where I am today, being able to ensure that not only my State but any coastal State has the capacity to ensure a tsunami warning system is not only the best but the best in the world.


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