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The Great Alaska Earthquake: Where it all started, Anniversary in Alaska

Government Hill Elementary School in Anchorage was destroyed when the earth cracked during the 1964 earthquake and subsequent landslides.  Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey
Government Hill Elementary School in Anchorage was destroyed when the earth cracked during the 1964 earthquake and subsequent landslides. Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey
 As Del Norters get ready to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 tsunami, Alaska is gearing up to remember the massive earthquake that spawned the tidal waves. The magnitude 9.2 Great Alaska Earthquake wreaked havoc on the new state on March 27, 1964, Good Friday. The quake generated landslides that destroyed homes and businesses in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city.  

Landslides also did damage in communities around Prince William Sound at the quake’s epicenter. In his book, “The Raging Sea,” Dennis M. Powers writes that much of Valdez, 55 miles away from the epicenter, slid into the sea, while landslides destroyed waterfronts at Seward and Whittier.

“Due to the numerous passages, inlets and islands in the Prince William Sound, the main tidal wave caused devastation and deaths in Alaska before speeding south to the U.S. West Coast,” he wrote.

 

The main surges arrived in Del Norte County roughly five hours after the earthquake, leveling buildings and killing 11 people.

In addition to holding local walking tours and a ribbon-cutting event at Crescent City Harbor next Saturday, emergency officials will take part in a countywide tsunami evacuation drill March 26.  

On the following day, Alaska will test its tsunami live code, while residents and businesses participate in a statewide earthquake drill, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

State emergency officials and members of the U.S. military stationed in Alaska will also participate in cooperative exercises modeled on the events of the 1964 earthquake, Zidek said. Those exercises will take place from March 27 to April 3.

 “There’s going to be over 400 organizations participating in it,” Zidek said.

The test of the live tsunami code will activate the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s tsunami sirens. It will be broadcast over the Alaska’s Emergency Alert System and will be sent to emergency managers statewide, Zidek said. Individual communities may respond to the test by activating their tsunami sirens, he said.

 “Here we have local control for all of our tsunami warning sirens,” Zidek said. “One of the reasons is because we have that local tsunami danger in most of our coastal communities. If there’s violent shaking they really can’t wait for the tsunami warning center to generate a warning message.”

State emergency officials tell Alaskans an earthquake that lasts more than 30 seconds is their warning to get to high ground, Zidek said.

The 50th anniversary of the Great Alaska Earthquake will also mark the third Great Alaska Shake Out earthquake drill. Roughly 55,000 people statewide participated in the first drill held last March, while 49,000 residents participated in October’s “shake out.”

“We’re one of the most seismically active regions in the world,” he said. “We haven’t had one that has caused major damage in the last 50 years, but we’ve averaged about one 8.0 earthquake every 10 years.”

Meanwhile, communities across the Last Frontier have activities and events of their own to commemorate the earthquake and tsunami. The Anchorage Museum will feature exhibits and displays focusing on the science, history and recovery efforts.  

Railroad tracks were bent from the force of the earthquake.  Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey
Railroad tracks were bent from the force of the earthquake. Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

In Homer, on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage, the Pratt Museum will feature an art show, “Communities, Disaster and Change,” that will be on loan from the Valdez Historical Museum and Archive.

Even though it was on the other side of the Peninsula from Prince William Sound, the earthquake caused dramatic land-sinking in Homer and in Seldovia, said Scott Bartlett, the Pratt Museum’s curator of exhibits. Homer is connected to other communities on the Kenai Peninsula via the Sterling Highway, but Seldovia is across Kachemak Bay from Homer and is only accessible by boat, he said.

“Seldovia was the big city on Kachemak Bay, until the earthquake,” Bartlett said. “Seldovia was a deep port on the south side of the bay that (had) a better harbor. When the earthquake hit everything subsided and the boardwalk and all the buildings were flooded.”

For more information about Alaska events commemorating the 1964 earthquakes or to read people’s stories, visit ready.
alaska.gov/64Quake
.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at  This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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