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Face of Disaster

Office of Civil Defense
The Department of Health, Education and Welfare

In the evening hours of Good Friday, 1964, an earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter Scale struck off the Alaskan shore sending a towering tsunami and a seismic shockwave barreling towards Anchorage, Seward, Kodiak and Alaska's many other coastal cities.  At anchor in the Port of Valdez, the S.S. Chena was tossed about by the waves.  Crewman Fred Numair clung to the freighter's deck with one hand and captured the destruction of Valdez on an 8mm camera with the other.  The following spring, in May of 1965, The Office of Civil Defense combined Numair's footage with newsreels and personal accounts of survival to create Though the Earth Be Moved.(1)  At 42 minutes in length, Though the Earth Be Moved presents a very thorough depiction of the disaster, highlighting emergency responses from the government, the military and civilian volunteers.  The comprehensive motion picture struck an immediate chord with critics and was a select entry at the 1965 San Francisco Film Festival.(2)  It became popular with audiences as well and would remain the top requested film from government archives for the rest of the decade.(3)


In July of 1965, just two months after the premiere of Though the Earth Be Moved, The Office of Civil Defense and The Department of Health, Education and Welfare released Face of Disaster.(4)  The first half of Face of Disaster is a condensed version of Though the Earth Be Moved, opening with that film's most graphic scenes including massive utility fires in Seward, Anchorage's 4th Avenue Business District collapsed 12 feet below ground and miles of warped and snapped rail lines. Most of the intricate personal stories developed in Though the Earth Be Moved are cut.  This was a common practice in the 1960's where government planners would produce shortened prints of lengthier films, often with the goal of screening them for the passing crowds at civil defense displays.  With a run time of 11 minutes, Face of Disaster certainly appears to fall into this category of abbreviated films.  However, the second half of the film discusses many other natural disasters, including the 1965 Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak which killed 242 across the Midwest, and uses footage which is not featured in Though the Earth Be Moved.  The narrator's stern message quickly becomes clear.  No city, from Seattle to Toledo to Davenport, can escape the need to be ready for disasters, including nuclear war.  These additions suggest Face of Disaster is not merely an abbreviated version of Though the Earth Be Moved.  The question arises then, why finance a film so similar to Though the Earth Be Moved so soon after the lengthier one's release?


One possibility lies with the statistics presented in the closing moments of Face of Disaster.  The narrator explains the 12,000 floods, fires, hurricanes and tornadoes causing distress across the United States, increasingly cause problems for populated areas.  Alaska's Good Friday earthquake destroyed buildings and utilities and displaced local populations on a scale similar to that of a nuclear strike.  The entire second half of Though the Earth Be Moved is dedicated to details of the emergency response, particularly how survivors were provided federal fallout shelter supplies to sustain themselves until regular services were restored.  Although Face of Disaster uses the Alaskan earthquake as a premise, its outward focus is much less on the emergency response and more on the need to be prepared ahead of time.  The frightening statistics and footage of natural disasters occurring coast to coast reminds the viewer that nature can, and often does, strike anywhere and on small but devastating scales.  Although the film only briefly mentions nuclear war, its focus on natural disasters fit well into the changing landscape of American civil defense policy.  In 1972, the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency took over emergency preparation for the United States and introduced the concept of total preparedness which sought to protect the public from natural disasters, the chaos of nuclear war and the dangers of civil disturbances.  Face of Disaster, then, would not be deemed obsolete but instead could be rented or purchased, alongside Though the Earth be Moved, from government catalogs.(5)

Face of Disaster may be viewed, in its entirety, HERE.

1. Office of Civil Defense.  Motion Picture Catalog.  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966.  28.
Office of Civil Defense.  Motion Picture Catalog.  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966.  28.
3.  Office of Civil Defense.  1967 Annual Report.  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968.  97.
4.  Office of Civil Defense. Motion Picture Catalog. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966.  11.
Department of the Army.  Index of Motion Pictures and Related Audio-Visual Aids, 1972.  343.