How do you measure the impact of a natural disaster?
After the devastating Good Friday earthquake in 1964, archivers collected print newspaper headlines, letters and photographs shot on film. After a magnitude 7 earthquake rolled through Anchorage Nov. 30, when the Anchorage Museum began working to catalog and archive the event for future generations, museum director Julie Decker said staff also turned to the Internet.
“That’s where stories are being shared, that’s where photos are being shared, and we saw a lot of memes going out,” Decker said, laughing. “They’re really a record of our time, that kind of popular culture response; that human response really tells the story the best, so we’re making sure we document those.”
Anchorage’s historical record of the Nov. 30 quake will now include viral memes and verses published via Facebook and Twitter. It’s a revealing look at the community that created them, Decker said.
“There’s that real resilience aspect to it,” she said. “One of the things that was going around was that we had an earthquake and then a windstorm and then a snowstorm and then locusts are coming on Thursday; that’s our weather report.”
That particular meme — a mock five-day forecast calling for everything from earthquakes to ice locusts to a “polarbearcano” — is the creation of Anchorage web developer Steve Keller, who published it on his personal Facebook page the day after the earthquake. The weekend weather forecast called for strong wind gusts and an impending snowstorm, and Keller said he’d had enough.
“I was not in a good place, I don’t think many of us were,” he said. “When I heard that forecast — that we were looking at high winds and snow — I was like, ‘This is getting absolutely Biblical.’”
Within 48 hours, the meme had gone viral, shared and reposted thousands of times. It speaks to Alaskans’ moods in the days following the earthquake, Keller said.
“I think a lot of people were feeling the same way, when they saw that forecast — ‘How much more can we take? Is this some sort of judgement?’” Keller said. “It was really starting to feel that way.”
To sculptor Rebecca Brubaker, Keller’s meme seemed to reflect the apocalyptic feel of the earthquake and its aftermath.
“That’s how I feel!” Brubaker said, preparing to return to work on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus five days after the earthquake. “That’s totally, I think, how everybody feels, like, ‘Uh oh, this is it, this is the end, Mad Max, thunder dome!’”
Brubaker was at home when the earthquake hit, raining books and board games down from their shelves. She said she wanted to record the feelings that followed, so she started writing haikus every time she felt an aftershock. Now her handwritten verses fill a page.
Brubaker said she wrote about it because she wanted to commemorate the quake. She knew the physical damage would be repaired, she said. The earthquake’s most visible signs would eventually disappear. Written words could help preserve the memory, she said.
“This is a way to record the event without leaving a big crack in the wall, or leaving the board game explosion on my stairs,” Brubaker said.
In the week following the earthquake, the Anchorage Museum invited Alaskans to use the tag #AnchorageMuseumQuakePoems to share their poetry about the experience via social media, or to share single-word descriptions that other poets would then spin into even more poetry. Decker said the verses will become part of the museum’s earthquake archive.
“As a museum we’re storytellers — of our place, our past, our future — so to find a way to record those stories is really important to us, and we wanted to invite people to do that in a creative way,” Decker said.
Taken together, Decker said, the poetry and pop culture inspired by the November quake illustrate something vital about the state.
“There’s kind of this empowered nature in Alaska, to the memes and other things that are going out there,” Decker said. “I think that’s really revealing about our character and our story, and I think that’s what we convey to outsiders — ‘We got this.’”