Great Land of Alaska

1964 Good Friday Earthquake

March 27, 1964--Good Friday--seemed like just about any other Good Friday. The temperature was at a warm spring-like 28°F (-2°C). School was closed, many offices closed early, and many people were either home preparing for the weekend festivities or attending Good Friday services. Nobody knew the forces at work approximately 100 miles (161 km) to the east under the mountains surrounding Prince William Sound. Years of plate techtonic activity had been creating pressure along a faultline, pressure that on this day was finally to give way.

At 5:36pm Alaska time, the breaking point finally came. Unable to hold back the pressure, the fault finally slipped. For the first 10 seconds or so, the ground rocked gently. Most people weren't concerned much, for they had experienced a lot of Alaskan quakes and had learned that they were a part of life here. The gentle rocking increased, and the ground soon began to surge underfoot. Large surface waves were visible, like waves on water. Huge fissures, some up to 30 feet wide, opened and closed in the ground. Anchorage began to crumble as the shaking continued. Houses and buildings twisted and collapsed. Lamp posts fell over. Trees were uprooted. Unable to remain standing due to the seismic waves that were hurling anything and everything into the air, people clung to lamp posts, cars, and each other in an attempt to keep from being knocked down. For almost five minutes, the ground shook. When it was finally over, Anchorage was in ruins, a victim of a massive magnitude 9.2 earthquake, the second largest earthquake ever recorded in world history.

The damage to Alaska's largest city was devastating. An unoccupied apartment building collapsed. A large crevasse ripped an elementary school in half. A quarter-mile section of 4th Avenue was ripped apart as bars, stores, pawn shops, and cars on the north side dropped 11 feet. In a northwest Anchorage neighborhood, a 30-block section of land liquified and slid into the ocean, destroying houses along the edge of the moving mass but sparing those in the center. Along the main street of suburban Spenard, every building higher than one story had collapsed. At the Anchorage International Airport, the 68-foot control tower had toppled.

The damage wasn't confined to Anchorage alone. Valdez, the city closest to the epicenter, was completely destroyed. The ground rose and fell in waves up to three feet (one meter) high. Huge cracks opened and snapped shut in the ground, sending jets of water as high as 20 feet (six meters) into the air. Buildings collapsed. The S.S. Chena, a 10,000 ton cargo freighter that was moored at the dock, listed violently, destroying the dock and killing several dock workers. Giant waves carried the Chena and deposited it on dry land, before returning and carrying it back out to sea. After the quake was over, Valdez was pounded by tsunamis until almost 2:00am. By morning, Valdez was destroyed, most of its commercial buildings and almost half its houses either demolished or rendered uninhabitable. 32 people had died.

The port city of Seward, on the southeast of the Kenai Peninsula, also suffered major damage. A three-quarter mile (1.2 km) section of the waterfront broke free and slid into Resurrection Bay. The train yard was destroyed. Not only did Seward suffer the effects of the trembling ground and tsunamis, it had another disaster to deal with--fire. The oil tank farm ignited in what witnesses say looked like the explosion of an atomic bomb. 12 people were killed.

Kodiak, on Kodiak Island to the south, felt the shaking but there was little damage from the actual quake itself. Instead, Kodiak fell victim to the resulting tsunami. Nearly half of Kodiak's fleet of fishing boats were sunk or rendered unseaworthy. Two of the three crab and salmon canneries were carried off by the tsunamis, and the third took three months to repair. The tsunami picked up a general store, carried it out to sea, then floated it back to within a few hundred yards of its original location. Eight people died.

Many smaller towns were also severely affected. Homer and Cordova both lost some of their waterfront. Float installations at Seldovia were destroyed. The entire town of Chenega was wiped out of existence, along with 23 of its 76 Aleut inhabitants.

The tsunami damage wasn't confined to Alaska. Vancouver Island, Depoe Oregon, and Crescent City California were smashed by the tsunami, killing 14 people. Hawai'i and Japan were also struck by tsunamis.

The initial seismic waves from the Good Friday Earthquake were so powerful that buildings as far away as Seattle, Washington swayed. The ground in Houston, Texas, was briefly lifted by four inches (10 cm), and lifted by as much as 2.5 inches (6 cm) in Florida. For two weeks, the entire planet vibrated like a giant gong as the seismic waves cirlced the globe.

This quake altered more of the earth's crust than any other earthquake on record. More than 25,000 square miles (40,233 square km) of land north and west of the fault had shifted to the southeast. Much of this land dropped between 2.5 and 7.5 feet (.75 and 2.3 meters). Much of the ground south and east of the fault had lifted an average of six feet (1.8 meters), with the maximum being 38 feet (11.6 meters) at Montague Island. Undersea ground in a line from Ninchinbrook Island to the Trinity Islands--parallel to the faultline--lifted as much as 50 feet (15.2 meters). This is what caused the tsunamis that devestated Valdez, Seward, Kodiak, and many other towns. Anchorage shifted laterally six feet (1.8 meters), Valdez 33 feet (10 meters), and Seward 47 feet (14.3 meters).

For three days after the quake, almost 300 aftershocks shook Southcentral Alaska. Eighteen months passed before the aftershocks finally ceased, which numbered more than 10,000.

Alaskans are a tough people with a sense of humor, and despite the loss of life (115, which is nothing compared the December 26, 2004 quake and tsunami in Asia, but any loss of life is tragic) approached the situation with gallantry and humor. Many people teased each other about living "on the wrong side of the cracks." In reference to both his damaged store and the approaching spring thaw, one store owner hung a sign in his store reading "Closed, due to early breakup". A new slogan in Kodiak gained popularity: "Come to Kodiak and see the tide come in and the town go out."

What are the chances of such a disaster striking Alaska again? The answer is, pretty good. Alaska is one of the world's most seismically active areas. 11% of the world's earthquakes occur in Alaska, and three of the 10 largest earthquakes ever recorded in world history were in Alaska. The only reason that the total death toll for the Good Friday Earthquake didn't even come close to the large December 26, 2004 Asia 9.0 earthquake is because Alaska is so sparsely populated. Alaska's population has grown greatly since 1964, so if the same quake was to happen again, the death toll would easily be much higher.

Today, some effects of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake can still be seen. Dead trees stand along the Seward Highway near Girdwood and Portage, victims to the saltwater that killed them when this ground along the waters of Turnagain Arm sank. Pilings are visible off the shores of the Homer spit, remnants of structures that once stood on what was once dry ground, now claimed by the waters of Kachemak Bay.

Scanned pictures of the Good Friday Earthquake damage.

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