The Alaska Earthquake of 1964

About the Alaska Earthquake of 1964, the history of the destruction of Anchorage.


Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, the 49th State, is built on unstable clay that sits astride the volcanic arc of the Great Pacific Basin, "the Circle of Fire" that begins in the North Pacific and follows around to the Kuriles and Japan. On a Good Friday evening with the temperature already at 24 deg. and falling, and with snow transforming a good portion of Alaska's 600,000 sq. mi. into a winter wonderland, an earthquake of greater intensity than San Francisco's 1906 destroyer struck hard. Buildings crumbled, streets cracked open, the sea rose and fell creating waves of tidal height and strength to make the Alaska quake a major disaster.

When: At 5:30 P.M. on March 27, 1964.

Where: Anchorage, Alaska.

The Loss: 115 dead. Property damage $300 million.

The Disaster: Alaska is no stranger to earthquakes, but the one that hit Anchorage on Good Friday evening in 1964 was something else. In the tradition of most big earthquakes, this one struck without warning from its epicenter, 1,200' beneath Prince William Sound, 80 mi. east of Anchorage. In Valdez, "the Switzerland of America," northeast of Anchorage, a seaman was unloading the Chena, a 10,815-ton ship. On the dock were 3 workers and 2 children. When the quake hit, the dock, the workers, and the children disappeared.

For 500 mi. along the "volcanic arc" between Cordova and Kodiak, the earth twisted and rolled like seawater. Homes along the expensive Turnagain-by-the-sea collapsed. Downtown Anchorage buildings crumbled as though made of sand. Fourth Avenue dropped 11' and lurched sideways 14'. Fissures that measured 6' by 100' opened and closed.

Apartment buildings collapsed as did the J. C. Penney department store. Schools broke in 2 and hospitals fell. At Valdez the water drained from the harbor to rush back in successive tidal waves. At Chenega, on Prince William Sound, a 90' tidal wave demolished the town and drowned 1/3 of the population. At Crescent City, Calif., a tidal wave destroyed 56 business blocks.

Communications other than radio were out of commission. Military personnel from Fort Richardson and Elmendorf were called in. Troops patrolled downtown Anchorage. Water and gas lines were uprooted, and ruptured gasoline storage tanks poured volatile fuel into streets. Within 3 hours, and while aftershocks still shook the area, army bulldozers were at work clearing debris-piled thoroughfares, lighted by emergency-powered searchlights.

By Monday, March 30, damages were assessed. In Anchorage, 215 homes and 156 commercial buildings were destroyed, while 115 people were dead.

Aftermath: Had a quake of 8.6 intensity struck Los Angeles, New York City, or any other high-density city, the Anchorage figures would have been multiplied by thousands. Even Anchorage's death figures would have doubled had the quake struck during business and school hours. With government financing, much of Alaska was rebuilt on the same unstable ground. Six years after the disaster, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences reported: "Natural disaster plans have not been developed to any degree, nor is it clear what steps have been taken to ensure better construction practices."

Tomorrow: The council's report attempted to analyze all factors of the Alaska catastrophe, from locations of cities through economics to warning systems. To what degree this particular analysis is correct cannot be evaluated today, but according to the report, tomorrow promises the same natural disasters that have plagued the world since the beginning of time.

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