Of all the valuable lessons I’ve learned since moving to Alaska, respecting the power of nature and the planet upon which we reside takes top honors. Even though I grew up in the Seattle area, a seismological hotspot within the famous “Ring of Fire,” there are few temblors to compare with the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964.
I wasn’t born yet. My mother, a flight attendant for Northwest Orient Airlines, was regularly landing in Anchorage and taking off again on her way to places exotic. She found the Last Frontier to be exciting, full of life and amazing opportunities to explore this new state.
Then March 27, Good Friday, arrived with a shudder so strong and of a duration so lengthy some people wondered if it would ever stop. The 9.2 earthquake shook for nearly five minutes, and was centered near College Fjord in Prince William Sound. If you go there today, you can see trees that have sunk into the salt water and died, suffocated from an overdose of minerals and muck. Around $300 million in damaged property and goods occurred, and 131 people lost their lives; 115 in Alaska, and 16 in Oregon and California, west coast states that also felt residual waves of land and sea.
Friends who were children in 1964 reported to me a feeling of utter confusion; some parents were home, some were not. Some kids were planted in front of the television, watching a futuristic space program that, ironically, showed a rocket taking off with a loud “Whoooosh” at the same time the quake began. Adults did their best to shield children, older siblings tried to save younger ones from breaking windows and falling light fixtures, cowering under tables and spread-eagle in front yards, gripping the grass as if it were a life rope, praying the rolling feeling would stop, stop, stop.
When it finally did, waves came. Not to Anchorage, but through coastal communities like Kodiak, Seward, and little Valdez, a town literally swept off its foundations by an enormous wall of water and today, sits in a completely different location.
The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 may have happened more than 50 years ago, but every year, about this time (and especially after the 7.0 earthquake of November 30, 2018), it’s important to provide opportunities for today’s kids to learn what to do if, and when, the planet’s crusty plates decide to play limbo.
For those visiting Alaska, it’s always a good time to explore sites touched by the Great Alaska Earthquake, to see what remains, and what might have been. Below are a few good options for learning and discovery, in the hope that we all might know what to do, next time:
1. Anchorage Museum. The museum has an extensive section about the Alaska earthquake, including video showing just how crazy those five minutes were for those experiencing it, firsthand.
2. Alaska Museum of Science and Nature, Anchorage. It’s all about how the earth was formed, folks, and the Alaska Museum of Science and Nature can explain it all. Stop by and visit the geology room, look at maps, and take a self-guided tour. Experience the many different styles and forms of rock that make our earth strong, yet delicate.
3. Seward waterfront. Seward’s railroad stretched right down to the waterfront in those days, and enormous fuel tanks exploded after being shaken loose from their foundations on March 27, and as a result of the tsunami that roared into Resurrection Bay. The old depot is a great place to look at crumbling concrete, twisted metal, and a view up the bay. It’s also right next to the Seward Sea Life Center, a nice stop post-quake exploring.
4. Valdez and Old Town Valdez. Of all the sites commemorating the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, Valdez provides me with the greatest emotional rift. Between the Valdez Museum’s “Remember Old Valdez” exhibit, in its own space near the ferry dock, and the actual Old Town site, one can feel the pain of this Prince William Sound community who lost so much on March 27. Be sure to view the new video, “A Moving Experience: A look back at the Great Alaska Earthquake,” then drive six miles from downtown Valdez to Old Town, where street corners are now brushy spots of eelgrass, but home foundations still sit, lonely, at the head of the bay. It’s sobering and beautiful.
And, as a reminder:
Check that emergency kit (keep seven days of supplies for each person).
Have a family plan, including texting, not calling.
Practice Drop, Cover, and Hold On.
Hopefully you won’t ever have to use it.