Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Great Land History: 1964: Good Friday Earthquake

 March 27, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of Alaska's devastating Good Friday Earthquake
We remember this week those who lost their lives and pledge to help others 

When earthquakes in the United States come into conversation, people tend to think of California, memories being so vivid of the terrible destruction that has so often visited that state. However, what many outside the state of Alaska—Outside, as Alaskans say—are unaware of is that the northern state is much more seismically active than the sun-drenched, western one, with movement occurring nearly every day, often many times within 24 hours.

Of course, Alaskans tend to be used to their earthquakes; the great majority of them are quick and small. There is a minor amount of shaking and people may pause and look at one another (or not), waiting out the few seconds it usually takes to be done. Occasionally buildings will sway, as they are designed to do; sometimes a plate may fall off the wall or glassware rattle on the shelves. Typically this is all.

When the shaking started on March 27, 1964, people generally responded in the same way. It was a Friday, Good Friday in fact; schools were closed and businesses wrapped up early for the holiday. The weather had warmed up to 28 degrees (-2 C) and the afternoon and early evening proceeded like any other.

Unbeknownst to Alaskans, however, the Pacific plate pushing under the North American, 100 miles east of the largest city, Anchorage, had been grinding away and was about to subduct. They were to know soon enough, however, as the rattling continued and the ground began to move beneath them. Surface waves motioned and gaping fissures in the ground split downtown Anchorage apart. 

Linda, a woman I worked with some years back, would occasionally remember that day for me, her most significant memory being of a man “running buck naked right through downtown.” He had been dressing following a sports activity when the quake struck. She said she was so traumatized by the sight and how devastated and humiliated the poor man might have felt, that she vowed she would never find herself in such a situation. “To this day,” I recall her declaring, “even showering at home involves having clothes at the ready, right there for me to grab if needed.”

Simultaneously in various areas, trees were torn from their roots, houses and buildings collapsed and people held onto anything they could grab to keep from falling over, or into the split streets themselves. Fourth Avenue, Anchorage’s main street, fell by 12 feet and an elementary school on Government Hill was torn into pieces. In a residential area 30 blocks of land slid into the water and the international airport’s control tower fell like a house of cards.

Valdez (Val-DEEZ), a small city close to the epicenter near Prince William Sound, was in utter ruins. The ground rose and fell, cracked wide open and snapped shut, and buildings collapsed. A cargo freighter, the SS Chena, was hurled onto dry land and the dock shredded; later it was carried back out to sea.

The effects were similar in other cities: Resurrection Bay hungrily swallowed nearly one mile of Seward’s seafront, the train yard destroyed and the oil tank farm erupted into flames. Kodiak lost half its fishing fleet. After four minutes of the earth violently churning beneath and around them, surviving Alaskans around Southcentral surveyed the devastation, and were horrified. The destruction related here was just a small portion of the aftermath: the cost of damage was $311 million (seen elsewhere: in today’s currency, $2.8 billion).

That wasn’t all. Next to come was the tsunami, occurring when the Alaskan seafloor lunged upwards, causing the water above it to be hurled into the air and towards land. Some survivors managed to outrun it (likely having had a head start) or escaped to higher ground. Valdez was beaten by tsunami waves late into the night and eventually fell to the torrent, rendered uninhabitable. The tsunami caused such destruction to trees that now, 50 years later, their corpses are still seen along the highway near Portage and Girdwood, where 20 miles of the Seward Highway had to be rebuilt as it had sunk to below the high water mark.

Dennis Giradot remembers the earthquake even though he was only five at the time. KCAW transcribes an audio in which Giradot recalls a flying pot of chili, his Beatles-fan brother’s guitar-shaped birthday cake (decorated with chili) and the sway of buildings outside their window.

[T]he next two nights we actual [sic] slept in our car[;] my dad had this big Mercury something… it was a blue thing with big fins in the back. The aftershocks were so constant and so strong we didn’t know if the building would hold up.
Others’ memories aren’t necessarily so lighthearted: Kim Kowalski-Rodgers recalls for KTUU the sounds she heard first as an eight-year-old child playing outside her family’s home on Third Avenue. “I knew it was a monster.” Indeed, the horrible noises the earth made did sound like those emitted from the brawling lungs of a dark imagining. When I first saw video of the earthquake, at Good Friday Earthquake Rocks Alaska, as it had occurred in Anchorage, the audio impacted me at least as much as the destruction in action before my eyes: the awful noises sounded like those Grendl might have made as he was mortally wounded, and I thought people surely must have been terrified by them.
In terms of death toll, numbers don’t come close to the 700 lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: 128. However, when measuring magnitude activity, this 9.2 quake went on record as the largest US quake in recorded history and in the world second only to Chile’s, occurring in 1960.

The disaster is still remembered by people around the world because although the damage was worst in Alaska, effects were felt around the world. The initial seismic waves shook buildings in Seattle and lifted Houston, Texas ground by six centimeters, 10 in Florida. Like a wave that ripples from one end of a body of water to another, so too did the shock waves across the globe, as they circled the world for the next two weeks. The tsunami that destroyed Valdez also reached the Hawaiian Islands and Japan, and killed 10 people in Crescent City, California. 

Alaskans are frequently reminded their land is "overdue" for another sizeable earthquake, but next time the damage is likely to be worse, especially if it occurs on a day open for business and academics.With a now-larger population and infrastructure, there is more to be lost. Shipping remains as weather dependent as ever, however, and it were to occur in winter months, the death toll could rise in the aftermath if lodging and food supplies are inadequate.
In this week of remembrance we reflect on those who lost their lives in 1964, and prepare as best we can to help those in need following any future disaster. 

Sources (not listed above) and further information:
Earthquake preparedness at AEIC
Great Land of Alaska: 1964 Good Friday Earthquake


  1. Listening to the audio and the recollections of those who were children 50 years ago really touched my heart. Their incomprehension of what they were experiencing must have been beyond terrifying. The clip of the earthquake ripping the earth apart was extraordinary. I have been in an earthquake myself back in 2007 in Queenstown New Zealand. It was 6.8 on the Richter Scale. It was terrifying. The after shocks continued all through the next day. My experience pales compared to Alaska's 1964 tragedy.

  2. Wow Lisl. I've never experienced an earthquake and I really don't want to. We see rocks and stones and they seem eternal; we forget that we live in a thin belt of earth and sky between the cold vaccuum of space above and a seething ocean of magma below. Our world, and the life upon it, is fragile and precious.

  3. Thanks for this awesome post Lisl. I love learning about Alaska, it sounds such an awesomely unique place, sadly this terrible tragedy brings awful memories flossing back for those who have experienced such frightening acts of God, however, it's so interesting to learn that even in these cold climates, such things occur.