High tides and silty waters
A sharp wind blew off the inlet at the Port of Anchorage on the morning of April 3 as camouflaged men and women bustled around the docks as part of the Alaska Shield rescue simulation.
Behind them stood the SSGT Robert T. Kuroda, the Army’s largest vessel, and out in the inlet, perpendicular to the Sleeping Lady peak, sat the naval ship Mendonca.
The training was part of a multi-level exercise involving 550 military personnel from five states plus seven watercraft vehicles.
Also called JLOTS or Joint Logistics Over the Shore, the program focuses on moving military relief supplies to areas rendered inoperable by disaster.
Last year, Operation Shield took place in Korea. This year it centered in Anchorage and spanned the anniversary of the Great Alaska Earthquake, which struck on March 27, 1964.
The Alaska exercise played off the following scenario: What would happen if another earthquake or tsunami wiped out the Anchorage port.
According to Mayor Dan Sullivan, who spoke at a press conference held on the docks at the tail-end of the exercises, over 90 percent of consumer goods come in through the port.
“We are a strategic military port, one of 19 in the nation,” he said. “We could indeed have another earthquake. Such exercises make us more prepared for the future.”
Yet the port poises challenges, namely the swiftly moving tides and the glacier silt which coats the bottom on the inlet, said Army Colonel Randy Nelson.
Which is why tug boats were incorporated into the scenario. The smaller vessels were better able to navigate shallower waters at low tide, thus avoiding problems associated with the silt bottom.
The training involved moving cargo containers hypothetically filled with relief supplies such as medicines, blankets and food, off the Mendonca and onto the tugboats. Supplies were then carried to shore and lifted off the vessels via cranes.
Approximately 105 cargo containers were moved per day.
“Have we had some problems?” Nelson said. “Absolutely. We’re up here to learn the lessons.”
Sgt. Major Tony Escalona, who sailed up from Virginia, quickly became educated to the strong-moving tides.
“The glacier silt builds up on the anchor and becomes a ball of frozen mud,” he said. “We’ve never operated in this type of environment before.”
Disaster relief isn’t part of the military’s normal job, Lt. Colonel Gerald Ostlund explained, which is why exercises such as Alaska Shield are so vital to both military and civilian populations.
“We learn from disaster management,” he said. “We learned from Katrina and now.” He swept his arm out across the horizon, as if indicating the bright blue waters of the inlet. “We’re better prepared.”