Ninety percent of the consumer goods for 90 percent of Alaska comes off ships at the Port of Anchorage. If a major disaster took out those docks, how could food, medicine and emergency supplies reach the hundreds of thousands who might be at risk?
A flotilla of gray vessels has been positioned in Knik Arm this week to test the military's ability to respond to such a catastrophe. It's part of the statewide Alaska Shield operation, with multi-agency drills taking place across the state and timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake.
The "Joint Logistics-Over-The-Shore" operation, or JLOTS for short, is commanded by U.S. Army Col. Randal Nelson. These joint task forces have become regular exercise in the past few years, usually taking place overseas. Previous JLOTS deployments have been held in Japan, Antarctica and South Korea.
At a news conference on Thursday morning, Nelson described how different branches of the military would use the JLOTS model to bring relief to an earthquake-damaged Alaska. The biggest ship in the exercise, the Navy cargo vessel Mendonca, carried containers capable of holding tons of supplies. It even carried tugboats, three of which were hoisted over the side after the fleet arrived in Anchorage.
But the 951-foot ship draws more than 30 feet and has to stay in deeper water well off the shallow, silty bottom near the docks.
"The Army has shallow draft vessels," Nelson said. They bring the material to shore where a variety of methods can be used to offload them — cranes, ramps, constructing a causeway.
"Even if the docks are down, we can still get to shore," he said.
The Staff Sgt. Robert T. Kuroda was among the vessels tied up at the port. At 275 feet and displacing more than 4,000 tons, it's the Army's biggest ship. But it draws just 12 feet of water.
Most of the seven crafts in the exercise came up from Tacoma, Wash., but the Kuroda arrived from Hawaii. It was a rough crossing said Chief Warrant Officer Robert Nelson. "The trip was scheduled for 10 days. It took 14," he said. Much of the time the vessel was twisting in 25 degree rolls, he said, noting that the crew was very happy to get to the calm waters of Cook Inlet.
Nelson is usually assigned to the Kuroda's sister ship in Baltimore. The 551 people involved with the drill came from five states, said Nelson, to test whether the ideas of the planners would work in practice.
"We had to find out if we could sail in these waters," Nelson said. "Could we handle the silt, the currents, the extreme tides."
During the drill, which was concentrated in daylight hours, the team was able to offload 105 pallets in one day, he said. He and Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler, who commands the port, pronounced the operation a success, but noted the work is not over.
"We'll review each step of what happened and make changes where we need to," said Mehler.
For Marines taking part in the exercise, the work in Alaska won't end when the rest of the group sails home. A line of military green earth-moving equipment stood to one side of the dock on Thursday. It will be reloaded and taken to Old Harbor on Kodiak Island where the Marines will put it to work on an airstrip for the village.