Good Friday goes bad

1964 earthquake has lasting effect on peninsula

Posted: Monday, April 10, 2006

Editor’s note: This is part one of five in a series examining the lasting effect the 1964 Good Friday earthquake had on the Kenai Peninsula, especially the residents who lived through it.

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  Boats were washed ashore during the quake and resulting tsunami on the north side of Resurrection Bay, coming into Seward. Photo courtesy of Al Herschberge


The Kenai River bridge in Cooper Landing collapsed following the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, cutting the central and southern Kenai Peninsula off from Anchorage and the rest of the road system.

Photos courtesy of Al Herschberg

In many respects, it had been a typical early spring day in Southcentral Alaska, the air warm by winter’s standards and holding out the promise of breakup and the greenup sure to follow.

Typical, that is, until precisely 5:36 p.m. when all hell broke loose.

Seismic data and anecdotal accounts say the shaking began gently and continued for several seconds like any number of minor temblors to which Alaskans were accustomed. Then the real rocking and rolling began. To many, especially the young, it seemed the end of the world.

A very long five minutes later, the worst was over, but the strongest earthquake ever recorded in North America had devastated communities across the region.

Most longtime Alaskans — those who experienced the magnitude 9.2 quake firsthand, and those who have read the books and seen the photos — are familiar with the destruction visited on Anchorage, Valdez, Seward and Kodiak by the quake and tsunamis it generated.


Boats were washed ashore during the quake and resulting tsunami on the north side of Resurrection Bay, coming into Seward.

Photo courtesy of Al Herschberge

Less widely familiar, perhaps, are the effects on communities on the southern and western portions of the Kenai Peninsula.

The quake shook Seldovia for only about three minutes, but it caused the earth there to subside about three and a half feet. Over the next several hours, Seldovia fell victim to successive tsunami waves that damaged boardwalk, harbor and breakwater facilities.

Homer trembled about as long, according to reports, and subsidence varied from two to six feet, much of it on the Homer Spit where trees and grasslands sank below high-tide level, ultimately dooming them to the poison of salt water. Tanks at the Standard Oil tank farm were surrounded by water. Harbor and dock facilities had to be replaced.

Folks living along the shores of Cook Inlet to the north reported trees whipping back and forth so far their tops nearly touched the ground.

Cathy Ulmer, now a resident of Homer, lived at the time on the family homestead at Stariski north of Anchor Point. She recalled her experience in one of a collection of 50 stories published in 1996 in a book called “Alaska Earthquake 1964: Where were you?”

“The violent shaking seemed to go on forever,” Ulmer said. “We were all awestruck by the time it was finally over.”

Damage to the family home was light, she said, though high waves did claim some heavy equipment on the beach.

Debbie Poore, another who told her story for the “Where were you?” book, lived on a homestead along the Kenai River. She remembered staggering out of the house as dishes, figurines and pictures plummeted to the floor and sitting on the hoods of the cars in the yard so they “wouldn’t be swallowed” by the ground cracks they were expecting to see at any moment.

In a conversation last week, Poore suggested that the western central peninsula, while certainly shaken, managed to escape the levels of damaged seen elsewhere because of its geology and sparse population.

“We didn’t have any tall buildings in Kenai,” she said. “The geology is distinct from east to west; it’s more mountainous in the east, and marshy, silty and flat in the west.”

Seismic maps showing the intensity of the quake do show that the western central peninsula shook less than surrounding regions.

The only real evidence Poore remembered seeing near the homestead (she was 10 years old at the time) was a long, three-inch-wide crack in the frozen marsh the quake had opened about a fifth of a mile from the river bank between Soldotna and Kenai at Eagle Rock.

But the quake had ruptured the link between Anchorage and the peninsula, she said, knocking out every bridge except the curving structure over Canyon Creek.

“I think it was better engineered to begin with, and in rock,” she said.

The quake left a lifetime impression, she said, one that returns with each new quake.

“It’s the second shake that gets my attention,” she said. “Then the adrenaline really starts pumping.”

A water tower and some buildings were heavily damaged at Wildwood Station, a U.S. Air Force base five miles north of Kenai. According to reports, one man was injured when the 145,000-gallon water tank collapsed, sending water into the officers club.

Almost 300 aftershocks jangled frayed nerves in the three days following the quake; 10,000 were recorded over the next year and a half. Incredibly, Global Positioning System data shows that seismic effects attributable to the Good Friday Earthquake continue to rearrange the western Kenai Peninsula today.

In a paper published in Geophysical Institute Quarterly in 2000, Professor Jeff Freymueller at the University of Alaska Fairbanks said that data indicates the western peninsula from Homer to Kenai is moving south-southeast at about two centimeters a year.

That movement is contrary, Freymueller said, to the generally north-northwest movement of Seward and the eastern part of the peninsula. The wayward motion, Freymueller believes, is due to lingering effects of the quake.

Southcentral Alaska is as seismically active as it is because it sits atop the boundary zone of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. The quake occurred along a northeast-southwest fault running from Prince William Sound to Kodiak Island where the Pacific plate dives below the North American plate.

According to the Freymueller, the stressed boundary of the two plates might be “trying to catch up” to the 1964 movement.

Anchorage sustained the worst of the quake damage. Located about 75 miles northwest of the epicenter, the quake shook the downtown area to the core. Sliding and subsiding earth damaged or destroyed dwellings and commercial buildings in the downtown area. Severe damage also occurred at Government Hill and Turnagain Heights.

The quake caused vertical displacement over a huge area of nearly 201,000 square miles. In relation to sea level, uplift on shore averaged six feet, but measured 38 feet at Montague Island, while subsidences measured as much as 7 feet in other locales. General subsidence occurred over an area of 110,000 square miles, including most of the Kenai Peninsula, according to USGS data.

The shaking was felt at great distances. Buildings swayed in Seattle. The earth briefly lifted a few inches in Texas and Florida. The entire planet vibrated like a bell for two weeks.

Beneath the sea, uplift of as much as 50 feet occurred in a line from Hinchinbrook Island to the Trinity Islands, according to USGS, causing the tsunamis that washed out Valdez, Seward, Kodiak and other towns. Tsunami damage extended as far as Hawaii and Japan. More then a dozen died on the coasts of Oregon and California, most at Crescent City, Calif.

USGS records show the quake altered more of the earth’s crust than any quake on record, shifting better than 25,000 square miles of land north and west of the fault toward the southeast.

Exact death toll figures vary depending on the historical source, some putting it as high as 131, with just 9 killed in the quake itself, 106 killed by tsunami in Alaska, and another 16 elsewhere on the West Coast. Terrible losses, to be sure, but remarkably light considering the intensity of the shaking.

There is no guarantee it won’t happen again. In fact, the chances are relatively good that it will one day. Alaska is among the world’s most seismically active areas. According to USGS, better than one in every 10 earthquakes in the world occurs here. Three of the 10 most severe ever recorded were in Alaska.

Alaska’s saving grace as far as death tolls are concerned is that it is so sparsely populated. The state’s population, and in particular that of Southcentral Alaska, has grown significantly in the past 42 years. The effects of a similar quake today would be far worse than Good Friday 1964.

Are you prepared?

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