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Even Alaskans who were elsewhere have earthquake stories

Frank E. Baker
Earthquake-damaged houses in Turnagain Heights in Anchorage. The neighborhood was destroyed during the March 27, 1964 great Alaska earthquake. USGS

Every year about this time I think about the devastating earthquake that struck Alaska at 5:36 p.m. on March 27, 1964, wondering if it will ever happen again.

Everyone in Alaska from Ketchikan to Dutch Harbor has told their 1964 earthquake story except me. You see, I was never allowed to tell one because I wasn't in Alaska when it happened. Even my parents wouldn't let me have an earthquake story.

On March 27, 1964, I was a college student enjoying spring break near Vancouver, Wash., on the Washington-Oregon border. Yes, I felt the earthquake, and I don't care if anyone believes me. I was staying by myself in a friend's cabin on a small lake, out in the country. About 7:36 p.m. (a two-hour time difference between the U.S. west coast and Alaska back then), I was standing on the lake’s shore, admiring the stillness that was settling in with the approaching darkness, when I thought I felt the ground move slightly. The lake's calm surface seemed to ripple, and a couple of small waves broke against shore. There wasn't a breath of wind, yet the air seemed to change.

I wasn't alarmed, just sort of intrigued as I returned to the cabin. I turned on the radio to get some music. But all of the stations had the same thing: news about a disastrous earthquake in Alaska. Here's my recollection of what was generally being reported during the first hours after the quake:

"Anchorage has been leveled... Valdez and Cordova in Prince William Sound have been washed away by a giant wall of water... Seward is a sea of flames... fishing boats in Kodiak are resting on the sides of the mountains... Alaska has been devastated... thousands are feared dead..."

The next morning's reports weren't much better, so I decided to hightail it to civilization, via hitchhiking, to see if I could contact my parents who lived in Anchorage.

Once in Vancouver, I was told telephone calls weren't getting through. The Red Cross wasn’t having much luck getting messages back and forth. So I decided to try a long shot. I got the name of a Vancouver ham radio operator and asked if he would call the ham who lived next door to my parents. The ham's call letters were etched in my mind, because his powerful signal bled into everything in our Spenard home: telephone, radio, television, even our electronic organ. In less than an hour I got my reply: "Parents OK. House intact. Don't worry."

This made me feel a lot better, but it was still difficult enjoying the rest of spring break.

Back at college the following week, I got ahold of my mom on the telephone. I asked her what it was like to go through an 8.7-plus magnitude earthquake (which was later updated to 9.2 magnitude).

"You had to be here," she said.

I started to tell her about my strange experience on the lake.

"You really had to be here," she interrupted. "The car was jumping around so high on the driveway that you could see daylight under the tires. Dishes from the kitchen flew around the corner into our living room, and other rooms. The front yard was rippling like ocean waves."

It was the second-strongest earthquake ever recorded in the world, only topped by the 1960 event in Chile. Alaska’s earthquake was felt over 700,000 square miles, which included Alaska and portions of western Yukon Territory and British Columbia, Canada. Severe shaking lasted five minutes, followed by several strong aftershocks. The earthquake was accompanied by a vertical land displacement over an area of 170,000 to 200,000 square miles. The major area of uplift trended northeast from southern Kodiak Island to Prince William Sound, and east-west to east of the Sound. The earthquake generated a gigantic seismic sea wave, or tsunami, that devastated towns along the Gulf of Alaska and left serious damage at Alberni and Port Alberni, Canada, and along the west coast of the United States and Hawaii.

In Alaska, there were 122 deaths from the tsunami wave and nine from the earthquake itself. Deaths in California and Oregon numbered 16. Total damage from the earthquake and tsunami was between $400 and $500 million.

Returning to Alaska that summer, I was eager to share my "earthquake experience" with friends, but before I could begin they would shake their heads and say something like, "Did you hear about the folks who were trapped inside the downtown restaurant that sank beneath the street? They were down there for days -- just having the party of their life..." or, "I was standing on the bluff in Turnagain and six houses just fell away toward Cook Inlet, out of sight..." or "I saw the tidal wave in Seward toss a railroad locomotive into the air like it was a toy..."

I gave up trying. Would anyone within a stone's throw of the epicenter of North America's strongest earthquake ever want to hear what it was like a couple of thousand miles away?

Frank E. Baker is a lifelong Alaskan and is currently a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.