50th Anniversary – The Great Alaskan Quake


I’ve been fairly tied up the last two weeks – and it caused me to miss a big date in Alaskan history.  Yesterday, Thursday March 27th, marked the 50th Anniversary of the Great Alaskan Quake.  On Good Friday, March 27th, 1964 at 5:36PM Alaska time a 9.2 Magnitude Earthquake centered in Prince William Sound shook southern Alaska for nearly three minutes.  This is remembered by a number of names, the Quake of ’64, the Portage Earthquake, the Good Friday Quake, but most call it the Great Alaskan Quake.  It is the largest earthquake in North American written history, and is only surpassed worldwide by the 1960 Valdivia, Chili earthquake in magnitude.  The quake was responsible for 143 deaths from ground fissures, collapsing structures, and tsunamis.

This earthquake was massive, and I mean Massive!!

Magnitudes on the Richter Scale is not relative to each other.  Every point is ten times worse than the next, so this was over 10 times worse than an 8.0 which is considered to be when “homes are a total loss, and rivers & landscapes are forever diverted”.  The Northridge Earthquake (L.A. Area) of 1984 was a 6.7 & the 1989 San Fransisco (World Series) Earthquake was a 6.9 — The Great Alaskan Earthquake had aftershocks bigger than them,  ELEVEN over 6.2 in the first 24 hours and nine more in the next 3 weeks.

It was centered 120 miles from Anchorage, yet the full brunt was still felt here.  Some experts have stated the actual epicenter really wasn’t.  The quake, happening where the Pacific and the North American plates meet, was such a massive disruption that the epicenter was actually approximately 10 miles long.  It was said it felt like you were in a boat in rough seas, where the ground just rippled in waves under you – but it was the ground, not water.

The land under the city shifted and slid.  Areas around down town tried to push towards Ship Creek, pulling roads and buildings apart.  Much of the land on the north end of the town was mostly built on what was fine silt that when shook like that acted more like liquid than solid.  A classic scene from the quake shows Fourth Avenue & Barrow Street, where half the road is about fifteen feet below the rest of the road.

While downtown was sliding north towards Ship Creek, Government Hill was sliding south.  Still until this day, the rolls on the southern side of Government Hill shows the undulations of caused by the landslides there.  Classes let out early at the Government Hill Elementary School, and if the quake happened earlier in the day, the death toll would hit a scarey level of sadness.

If you look at the back of the picture, you will see the water tower, painted red & white checked.  Somehow that water tower stood, and still stands today just at the edge of Government hill off of Harvard and on top of Loop Road (FYI – the curling club is just below it at a patch where the landslide leveled).

Outside of town was torn apart by it too, more towards the base of the mountains towards the rivers where the land could easily shift in the went thawing ground and along the longstanding faults below.   The hamlet of Girdwood had to be moved inland by a mile or be flooded out by the tides, and the town of Portage had to be abandoned for the same reason.  Higher up the hillsides, subdivisions were ripped apart. This picture was along the Knik river.

All you have to do is Google 1964 and Earthquake, and you can see hundreds of pictures of the damage, the repair, and the history.  In modern numbers, the quake did over $900Million in damage.

With the earthquake came a devastating tsunami.  Of the 143 people killed by the effects of the earthquake, 113 was due to the Tsunami.  That Tsumanis that came immediately after and in the aftershocks that day destroyed the cities of Chenega, Whittier, & Portage – and caused the town of Girdwood to move inland 2 miles.  Some reports suggest the wave reached 200feet high and struck all down the coast of Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, California, and Hawaii.  YES … CALIFORNIA.  Two kids playing in the ocean were tragically killed in Crescent City, CA.

That was not the only far reaching reports.  It was said the earthquake caused the space needle in Seattle to sway, and lakes in Louisiana & Texas could be seen to slosh from it’s effect.

Since 1964, Alaska and Anchorage specifically imposed harsher building codes for buildings and structures.  The thirteen story tower I work in is built on rollers so that it can sway with a quake rather than crumble trying to stabilize.  We run earthquake drills at work, and are encouraged to keep an earthquake kit at home.  The West Coast of North America has  tsunami warning system and Tsunami Warning Center built specific in response to this earthquake.  The city is now quake conscious and quake aware.

Probably the harshest realization about the quake came from the old Cessna head of security, Captain Ken, who told me he lived through the quake when living in Anchorage.  He said because of the quake he will never lay foot in Alaska again.  To this day, he is the only person I have met who has been through the quake, and is the only person who didn’t say they would move back to Alaska if they could.  It was the one thing that made this city unloved.

Let’s just hope the next big one holds off for more than 49 years more.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s