Fifty-three years ago -on Friday, March 27, 1964- Alaska was hit by the strongest earthquake ever recorded on the North American continent and the second strongest anywhere in recorded history.
The magnitude 9.2 event took 131 lives in Alaska, California, and Oregon. Only nine deaths were attributed to the earthquake while the remainder were due to the tsunamis generated by underwater landslides. The epicenter of the event was 124 miles north of Prince William Sound, 40 miles west of Valdez and 78 miles east of Anchorage. It was caused by slippage of the North American and Pacific faults which cross 15.5 miles below the earth’s surface.
Anchorage sustained most of the $311 million in damage ($2.3 billion in current dollars). Several coastal villages were wiped out while Seward, Valdez, and Whittier were heavily damaged. In those three ports, oil storage tanks were ruptured or overturned and set ablaze. Chenega, on Evans Island in the Prince William Sound, and Afognak, on Kodiak Island, were both destroyed by the tsunamis. Those villages, as well as the town of Valdez, afterwards were relocated to higher ground.
Areas north of a line between the epicenter and Kodiak Island subsided about three feet, causing flooding at high tide in some areas. That area included Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm. The Glenn Highway section across Eklutna Flats had to be raised in order to be above water at high tide. The small settlement of Portage was lost; remnants of some buildings are still visible today above the mud. South of the line marking the slippage, land was uplifted as much as 37 feet, 9 inches.
In Anchorage, blue clay in the soil was the main factor in damage to structures. During the prolonged shaking, which lasted almost a full five minutes, the clay turned to jelly and caused the earth to shift.
When its underlying soil slid away, Government Hill elementary school was broken into sections. Fortunately, the school was empty because of the Good Friday holiday. Heavily damaged was the downtown area where buildings on the north side of Fourth Avenue slid partway down the bank along a four-block area. The upscale neighborhood of Turnagain Heights, located on a bluff overlooking the Inlet, lost 75 homes when the ground gave way.
Power in Anchorage was disrupted for three or more days as lines were broken and facilities damaged. In parts of Chugiak-Eagle River, electricity was restored by Saturday. In Anchorage, natural gas lines were broken while water and sewer lines were dislocated. Alaska was cut off from the Outside when telephone cables went dead. Emergency communication was established by amateur radio operators while military signalmen were able to restore emergency connections. President Lyndon Johnson was informed of the disaster and the next day offered the government’s full support.
Residents of the affected areas were unsure what to expect when the shaking finally subsided. Many families were separated and worried about the safety of loved ones.
Radio stations KFQD and KENI were able to get back on the air within a short time, with KENI setting up a remote broadcast center in the parking lot of the Public Safety Building on C Street. The broadcasters elected to withhold information on casualties and instead concentrated on passing along names of people who wanted to let friends and relatives know they were safe. Priority was given to providing instructions from Civil Defense personnel, giving helpful survival tips and making listeners aware of danger areas to be avoided. Several roads were broken up and bridges failed.
This writer experienced the earthquake and its strong aftershocks. Hoping to relieve stress, he drove his family to Alabama a month later only to undergo a tornado warning there. Hearing the wind tearing at the door of the storm shelter where we took refuge, 6-year-old daughter Sherri, her voice trembling, said, “Let’s go back to Alaska. I don’t like tormadoes…I’d rather have earthquakes.”
When the tremor hit on that Good Friday, I was one of five civilian employees and one military man, working overtime on a priority job at the Field Printing Plant on Ft. Richardson. At first, we felt a rolling motion, lasting for perhaps half a minute during which I called to the foreman in the next room, saying, “Hey, stop rocking the boat.” Then a strong jolt hit, followed by an even stronger one. At that point, I exited the building and found four colleagues lined up on the road. One man rode out the quake inside the building. Five of us were facing the long frame structure; the sixth, the plant’s newly arrived supply sergeant, was facing us.
After the shaking stopped, he asked, “Does this happen very often?”
I do not remember any sounds until the ground movement stopped. Then I heard the alarm bells blaring in warehouses across a wide open space. While the ground was undulating underfoot, we were trying hard to remain upright. All my senses were focused on seeing what was happening. We watched the building as waves ran along its roof—waves that appeared to be nearly two feet deep. Those waves exactly duplicated ones that heaved the asphalt on which we were standing. A nearby power pole with two transformers attached resembled a fishing rod being flexed in preparation for a cast. The 8×8-foot door on the loading dock was made of solid 2×6 planks, with iron hardware hooked to a rail. It slammed back and forth non-stop.
Inside, everything that had been on shelves was now on the floor. Finished printing jobs, consisting of 25×30-inch sheets of paper, were still standing on the large carts on which they were stacked. The carts had rolled back and forth along the 60-foot pressroom corridor, all without spilling over. Marvin Heikes, the foreman, after we inspected the damage said we needed to find someone to get the power back on because the job was a priority. My response was that priorities had changed in the last 10 minutes and I was going home to check on my family.
The family was safe, still standing with neighbors in the driveway of our Birchwood home.
No. 1 Son Steve, age 11, had checked the inside of the house and reported everything seemed okay but that “the toilet is smoking.” Contents of a cabinet had spilled, causing that effect. Further examination disclosed that the television set in the master bedroom was intact on its stand…except that the stand now was upside down. I was glad not to have been able to observe the gyrations it underwent in getting that way.
My bride and her friend Betty Pyles had been shopping in Anchorage but returned earlier than usual due to an uneasy feeling that came over Barbara. The last stop on their shopping trips for the past year, usually around 5:30 p.m., had been the new JC Penny store. On any other trip, they would have been at the store which suffered major damage—and where two persons lost their lives and another was seriously injured, trapped in her parked car that was crushed by the falling facade.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.