The strongest earthquake in North America’s history, recalculated at 9.2, occurred in Alaska in 1964. Alaska and its Aleutian Islands sit on the edge of the circum-Pacific seismic belt. More earthquakes occur in Alaska than in the rest of the 49 states combined, as many as 4,000 quakes per year. On March 28 of this year, 48 earthquakes were recorded in Alaska.
The epicenter of the Good Friday earthquake was in Prince William Sound. The area of major destruction covered more than 100,000 square miles, while the quake was felt in an area of over 500,000 square miles.
The shock wave lasted about 3 minutes in downtown Anchorage and the adjacent residential area of Turnigan Arm. This is where the most severe structural damage occurred, 75 miles northwest of the epicenter. More than 30 blocks of commercial buildings and residences were destroyed, leaving more than 2,000 homeless in the Anchorage area. Southwest of Anchorage, some areas on Kodiak Island were raised by 30 feet, while southeast of Anchorage, near Portage and Girdwood, the land dropped as much as 8 feet in elevation. Seward Highway, which runs between Seward and Anchorage, required not only reconstruction but also fill to raise it above the new high tide levels.
In his extremely readable history book, Alaska, Saga of a Bold Land, Walter Borneman puts faces to the earthquake story. He writes of Anchorage taxi driver Joe Kramer who thought the other drivers had gone berserk when their vehicles fishtailed toward him like amusement park bumper cars. “It was when they started bouncing two feet off the ground that I knew it was more than just the drivers.”
Anchorage resembled a war zone. As darkness fell, residents spent the night without electricity, heat, and running water as temperatures dropped into the teens. Among the 55,000 residents in Anchorage residents, only nine deaths were recorded. Fortunately, because of the timing of the quake, 5:36 p.m. on a holiday, schools and most of the office buildings were empty.
For towns along the coastline of Prince William Sound the death tolls were much higher. Underwater landslides caused water displacement and waves traveling at 500 miles per hour. A 70-foot tall wave roared into the little village of Chenega killing 23 of its 68 residents. The nearby Port of Valdez just about disappeared when the tsunami swept over the harbor docks and tidal flats, killing 30 people. Fuel tanks ruptured and soon the harbor area was aflame.
Similarly in Seward, the bulk storage tanks of Standard Oil fell from sight, only to be replaced with a huge fireball. Waves lifted the wall of fire eight blocks inland and set many homes and shops on fire. Flames lit the sky all night long. Pilings from the exploded docks burned like candles in Resurrection Bay, their waterlogged ends submerged while the other oil soaked ends flamed above water. The Alaska Railroad lines north of Seward were a twisted mess.
Kodiak is located farther away from the epicenter. Here successive waves displaced boats from the harbor two to three blocks inland. Kodiak itself fell about five feet. The island’s famous bears were awakened from their hibernation, and rather than wandering around as usual, their tracks showed a direct flight toward the mountains.
Damage from the quake and tsunami was estimated between $380 and $500 million; that’s 1964 dollars. As federal relief poured into the state, the resulting building boom turned the earthquake into an economic benefit for many Alaskans. The state of Alaska recovered, mostly, as salmon beds that had been covered with silt returned to prolific breeding grounds. Where forests had been leveled, new growth developed. And wetlands that had been covered with salt water soon returned to nesting grounds for both native and migratory birds.
But at the eastern edge of Turnigan Arm, along the highway from Anchorage to Seward, there stands a forest of dead trees. This was once the town of Portage, where the Alaska Railroad splits, with one line running south to Seward, and the other tunneling through the mountain to Whittier. The name Portage is now mainly associated with the tourist attraction Portage Glacier. The town itself sank six feet during the earthquake, making it below sea level. There remains in Portage only a few ruined buildings and a forest of skeleton trees that died after the water table of their roots was covered with salt water. Unlike Valdez, Seward, and Kodiak, the town of Portage was never rebuilt.
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