Remembering the Great Alaskan Earthquake Fifty Years Later (Part one)
An Entrance Like no Other
March 27th. 1964 marked the second most ferocious earthquake ever recorded in official documentation. The three minute quake; three minutes and twenty seconds by Alaskan estimates, although some bumped it up to a good five minutes; shook buildings in Seattle and lifted the ground in Houston, Texas briefly, about four inches, before settling. Officially, it has been measured at 9.3, although the first news accounts declared the needle had jumped off the Richter Scale, estimating the quake at a walloping ten pointer. Alaskans think big. Even if it’s something as catastrophic as the Great Earthquake, they still need to make it a little bigger.
It’s said there isn’t a sound in the natural environment when a climatic event is about to take place. Some Kodiak residents say they were alerted to the coming tsunami that was triggered by the quake, when the birds fell quiet and the wildlife began migrating up into the hills. The townsfolk followed and were saved from the massive waves that thundered into port, chewing up canneries, destroying fishing fleets and gobbling stores.
If our own wooded area was quiet, we didn’t notice. We were making enough noise to drown out the sounds of heavy equipment at a construction sight. It was Good Friday. We had just returned from Anchorage with our Easter preparations and were transferring our good from the family station wagon to the house. Wicked girls that we were, my sisters and I dashed in ahead of the rest, clutching our new store-bought dresses, leaving our oldest brother and father to unload the groceries.
There is, I think, in my mind, a moment of utter stillness, a flashing image of the stark black and white silhouette of bare trees against a dull, end of winter sky. No song birds, no scuttling of ground squirrels burrowing into newly uncovered patches of fresh earth. No light rustle of wind. Just a few seconds without motion. Then we heard it.
Somehow, that was the most terrifying part. We heard this monster coming like an implacable giant letting out his angry roar before tearing through the countryside. We heard it before feeling its movement and wondered about it. When my mother spoke the word, “earthquake”, just the way she said it let us know we’d better hang onto our hats.
It was the way she said it that made me look out the window in the direction of the sound. I don’t know if I expected to see a mystical creature with a club in its hand, or a god of thunder, but I did not expect to see the landscape rolling like ocean waves on a troubled sea. The waves rolled up under the house, lifting it, bowing it, tilting it to one side, than unceremoniously slamming it back down on its pilings. They lifted again, with deeper, more shuddering surges, slamming the house over and over.
My brother had just stepped inside, but my father was on the porch, his arms loaded with groceries. Only his years as a navy man kept his legs rocking with each buckling roll and retaining his balancing act with his cargo. He was doing his best to come into the kitchen, but the porch was rocking and rolling in one direction while the house was dancing in another. Somehow my brother managed to grab the bags, set them on the sliding floor, then reach out with an arm to pull dad inside.
Why we all wished to stay inside remains a mystery. Perhaps we needed the feeling of shelter and family unity, or perhaps we were afraid of the ground opening up if we went out the door. Inside, we were the target area for flying projectiles. Dishes and appliances were clattering around on the counters, books were jumping away from their shelves, anything that wasn’t nailed down was taking on a life of its own.
My mother collected china porcelain. She kept it stacked in a cabinet, arranged it behind glass, mounted it across the dining and living room walls. The cabinet rattled open, spilling fine pieces, and the mounted dishes jiggled loose from their hangers. They began whistling around the room, landing with loud, individual crashes. With each crash, my mother would make a soft moan.
I decided I wanted to save her china, but the odds were against me. With each piece I held up, another came crashing down. Since I could only save one, I settled on the turkey platter. Years later, the turkey platter salvation was still a source of amusement, but there was a desire in all that wanton destruction, to save something.
Those who say the earthquake lasted five minutes have to be forgiven. It felt longer than that. It felt like an eternity. It felt like it was never going to stop. My younger sister broke down, sobbing hysterically, “we’re all going to die,” which seemed to take my mother’s mind away from her broken dishes. “If we’re going to die,” she said, “we’ll do it with dignity.” She sat down calmly on the buckling couch, held the two youngest children in her arms, and waited quietly for whatever fate had up its sleeve.
The family dog wedged its way under her arm, whimpering, yet nothing changed her composure. Almost as though obeying her command, the tremors slowly eased and settled.
The Longest Night
There was the act of putting our lives back together. The electricity was out. There was no reception on the battery operated radio. Not a single item had been left untouched. Clothes spilled from the closets. Figurines, bottles and accessories littered the area around night stands and dressers. Tools piled together or dropped crazily in different directions. Putting our lives back together meant first, putting back those items that had survived the quake where they belonged, and throwing out the rubble that had failed to survive.
It meant next, appraising our assets; our warm bedding and clothing, the number of candles, locating papers, pencils, books and games we could use to help us pass the evening. We discovered our propane camping stove and a hurricane lantern. For dinner, we ate the two half gallons of ice cream my mother declared had to be eaten before it melted.
Throughout the day and evening, other tremors would come to stop us in the tracks of whatever we were doing. Each time, we held our breath with sick dread, terrified we’d have to endure another mega-force quake. We didn’t go to bed until it seemed the turbulent upheaval had spent its course. Just as we crawled beneath our blankets, another seven pointer hit. It was the last straw for my sisters and me. Although we had agreed we would die with dignity, we cried.
I remember those moments so clearly, right down to the dim walls and the crossed legs in pajamas listening for the next warning, yet the following days and weeks fall out of sequence, forever confused and jumbled in that disordered path. Nearly three hundred after-shocks hit the South Central region over the next few days. For the next eighteen months, the earth routinely growled and rumbled, for a grand total of over ten thousand after-shocks that grew steadily smaller until they whimpered out. Each energetic shock brought a moment of panic, an air of expectation.
I don’t remember how long the electricity was out. It seems it tried valiantly several times before at last it could establish a solid glow. This effort could have lasted one day, two or three. It’s all a blur, punctuated by occasional cheers whenever we thought our power had returned for good.
I remember going outside the next day and standing with other family members looking down from the hill to the wooded area surrounding the inlet. An occasional long puff of smoke wafted the evidence of a home that had burned down with the earthquake. It was the first thought of how much worst it could have been for us.
At the End of the Tunnel
The reminder brought other concerns. Other than the shambles and the resettling of the house which left one portion slightly tilted above the other, we were doing well. There had been no injuries, no collapsed beams, no opening of the ground to swallow anything, but what of our neighbors? Without radio, there was no way of knowing the extent of the damage and our nearest neighbors had been busy doing the same things we were doing; organizing enough of the rubble around them to resemble something close to survival living.
There are good reasons to have a church, and those next few days illustrated them. The church became the grapevine for the activities of the survivors. It relayed the messages of those in need, it served as a central unit for locating the stranded. Throughout the day, men wandered in and wandered out, while women brought tinfoil covered pyrex dishes, prepared over propane burners, and set them on the table.
For once, I didn’t have my usual appetite when viewing a potluck spread. The biggest object of interest was a two-way radio that was able to pick up the helicopters flying over the Anchorage area. From them, we received our first realization of the full intensity of the quake. The crackling reports announced the devastation of Anchorage, the twisted ruins of the Turnagain Arm, tremendous landslides and giant fractures. The tiny village of Portage had washed out into the inlet. Seward, Kodiak and Valdez had all been struck by the accompanying tsunami.
Whittier had suffered another fate. A deep water port within the Prince William Sound and only sixty miles from Anchorage, Whittier was a valuable asset to the Alaskan community. Its main functions were as port of call for the Marine Highway system, a storage facility for cargo and as a prime fishing location. It had very little room for growth, however. Jagged alpine mountains rose immediately out of the water and surrounded the narrow strip of flat land on all sides. The only access beside boat was through two tunnels carved into the mountain range that separated Whittier from the Portage area.
Whittier’s position not only caused it to feel the direct results of the quake, it was hit by its own localized tsunami. A monstrous, 104 foot wave rose up out of the water and engulfed the trapped town. It swept away homes and businesses in a blink of the eye. Even worse, the rampaging carnage in the wake of the giant temblor had destroyed the Union Oil tank farm. Nine and a half million gallons of gasoline, diesel fuel, aviation fuel and kerosene spilled from the ruptured tanks. A spark from the nearby boiler room set the escaped fuel ablaze. Along with the upheaval by the earthquake and the brutality of the tidal wave, Whittier was burning.
A transfixed audience that previously was simply trying to grapple with the magnitude of the disaster and prayed fervently that loved ones and friends were not among the sketchy list of the missing and the dead that slowly transferred the way into air communications, suddenly developed a personal anxiety. A leading church member and the husband of the organist, was among the victims trapped in Whittier, a town that no longer had a way in or out with the destruction of its docks, the twisted wreckage of the railroad and the partially collapsed tunnels.
It was easy for young girls to relate to the organist. Natalie was young, newly married, and emotionally charged with all the qualities that define youthful passions. I believe it was the first time I’d actually seen the color completely drain from a person’s face. She staggered and nearly fainted when she learned of the blows that had struck Whittier. Maybe she would have fainted if not for the instant rush of female companions to her side.
Did we fortify her or was she fortified by an incredible inner strength? Young, pretty, in love, she didn’t lose her composure. She didn’t cry hysterically. She didn’t pace up and down with frenzied energy. She didn’t scream or make dramatic statements. She listened, hour after hour, her face grave and white, to the crackling radio, our only life line to the news outside our community.
Was it hours or days? Again memory fails to serve me. I don’t remember playing or giggling or gossiping through those first days of recuperation. For an unspecified time, I leaped from the carelessness or childhood to the worrying tasks of an adult. Those hours and days are tucked away inside the chaotic circumstances of events.
The strenuous hovering over the radio brought Natalie her first glimmering of hope. Two men had been spotted climbing out of the wreckage of the Whittier tunnels. For three days they had labored to return to civilization a list of the dead and the wounded. As a helicopter transported them to safety, it was confirmed. One of the brave hikers that had tackled landslides and the treacherously weakened tunnels was her husband.
It was the first time we celebrated. As the rebuilding process began, we would have other reasons to shout with joy. We celebrated when the electricity finally made a determined, solid connection. We celebrated when phone service was back in place and we were finally able to tell our out of state relatives we had survived. We were astonished to learn the effect of the quake had caused the swimming pool of a relative in San Bernadino to flood. One by one, we contacted other friends in the devastated towns, celebrating when we learned of their safety.
We were more thankful than despairing. In all, 115 people died as a result of the massive calamity that tore South Central and South Eastern Alaska apart at its seams. In numbers, some of these figured represented up to a tenth of the sparse population in the effected towns. We were thankful that our home and family was intact and our community spared of fatal tragedies. We were thankful that the catastrophe occurred with the first warming signs of spring, making it easier to repair our infrastructure and to survive the days of erratic power shortages. We were thankful for the courage demonstrated in each person, allowing all of us to be more courageous. We were also thankful that, through it all, Alaska had a sense of humor.
Author’s note: Please join us March 27th for Part II; as Alaskan get back on their feet in the aftermath of the earthquake and rediscover their sense of humor.
Karla Fetrow: It was the duration of the 1964 earthquake that made many believe the end of the world had come.