It began with a gentle roll on March 27, 1964. Then the ground surged. Waves, like those on water, rippled across the earth. Cracks up to 30 feet wide formed, and then snapped shut. People clutched light poles, parking meters and anything else they could grab to keep from being hurled to the ground.
Few who experienced the Good Friday earthquake 50 years ago will ever forget where they were at 5:36 p.m. when the magnitude 9.2 quake hit Southcentral Alaska. The largest earthquake in North American history devastated many communities and altered more of the earth’s crust than any other earthquake on record.
The massive quake disrupted an area of 185,000 square miles. Some areas dropped as much as 8 feet, others rose 38 feet. The quake killed 143 people from Alaska to California. A few were crushed. Several drowned. Some buried.
Alaskans understand that earthquakes are part of life in the Last Frontier. More than 10,000 earthquakes occur at various depths and magnitudes each year – that’s more than the number of quakes reported in the other 49 states combined.
In fact, earthquakes have been shaping Alaska’s landscape for centuries. Their handiwork can be seen from islands rising up in the Aleutian Chain to the country’s riverbeds, glaciers and mountains.
Most early earthquake accounts are fragmented. There are mentions of two in the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula as early as 1786 and 1788, when “the land was overflowed by a sea wave, and some lives were lost.”
Another on April 2, 1836, shook the entire coast of Southeast Alaska and triggered a series of waves that threatened to wipe out the town of Sitka. Several earthquakes rocked the area again near Yakutat in September 1899. A few Natives and prospectors witnessed a 30-foot wave hit land. Sitka continued to have quakes, including a severe shaker in 1917, and again in 1927, that stopped clocks and cracked buildings.
On a fine June evening in 1958 a monster shaker registering 8.0 on the Richter scale hit a vast area of Southeastern Alaska and northern British Columbia. At about 10:15 p.m. the earth shook so violently that glaciers moved in Lituya Bay near Yakutat.
Geologists say there is a great “loose joint” in the earth’s crust at Lituya Bay. Some of the world’s mightiest peaks and glaciers lie astride it, and when earthquakes occur, mountains twist, shake and tumble around.
But so far, Mother Nature hasn’t succeeded in shaking Alaskans off the land!