While my husband, Bob and I were in Anchorage, Alaska recently, we went to the area visitor’s center, where we watched a movie about the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake that occurred there. It was the largest earthquake in the history of the United States, registering 9.2 on the Richter Scale. The earthquake occurred on March 27, 1964 at 5:36pm, just 5 years after Alaska became the 49th state. It was Good Friday, and a lot of places had closed early for the holiday…a fact credited for savings lives. The death toll was relatively low, at 131…most of whom were killed by the tsunami that followed the quake. That number is amazing when you consider the magnitude of the quake. The property damage, was a very different thing. The main street became two levels. The school split into two sections, homes were leveled, and streets were split down the middle. All that is common in earthquakes…especially of that magnitude, but there were some things that were less common.
At the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, there exists a stand of dead trees. It might make sense to cut these trees down, but it would not be an easy thing to do. The ground dropped 10 feet in the 1964 earthquake, and the influx of salt water from the inlet killed the trees…petrifying them at the same time. To cut the trees down takes approximately 4 hours per tree, and seemed too impossible a job to tackle. The settlement of Portage, Alaska sank six feet, putting it below sea level. The town doesn’t really exist now, except as a ghost town. Everyone has had to relocate to nearby high ground.
But the area that hit me the most was an area called Earthquake Park. The four minutes that the earthquake rattled the area caused the Turnagain Heights neighborhood to virtually disappear. I guess the damage to that area is technically a landslide, but it was really more of a wave motion. During those four minutes, the land rolled up and down like a roller coaster. When the quake was over, many of the homes in that neighborhood had been literally swallowed up by the quake. As we looked at the area during our city tour and again as we walked the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, it felt so strange to me. Our guide told us that if you walked through the land that went uphill and then down hill, just like a wave, you could still see chimneys sticking up out of the ground, where the home that was attached to them had literally disappeared beneath the earth. I simply couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to have the home you were in, be swallowed up by the earth. I was not able to get any death toll that was specific to the Turnagain Heights area, but with so many people home for the coming holiday, I think there must have been several or even more. It’s hard to describe what I felt in the Earthquake Park area, but I guess it was a mixture of awe and loss. I don’t know how that much devastation could occur on a holiday weekend, with no loss of life. The area felt like you needed to be quiet…as a show of respect maybe. I can’t really say exactly, I just know that it is a place I will not soon forget.