A Brief History
On March 27, 1964, Good Friday to Christians, a massive earthquake hit Alaska, fracturing the ground, knocking down buildings, and causing tsunamis, all of which killed at least 131 people. Known variously as The Great Alaskan Earthquake, The Good Friday Earthquake, or The 1964 Alaskan Earthquake, by any name the massive magnitude 9.2 quake was the largest known earthquake in North American history.
Labeled a megathrust earthquake, one in which tectonic plates move to overlap each other, the massive quake lasted just over 4 and half minutes, probably seeming much longer to those who experienced it. About 500 years worth of built up stresses on tectonic plates were released, causing soil liquification, a situation where the ground becomes highly mobile, resulting in massive damage to sidewalks, roads, structures and the like. Fissures developed on the surface, landslides developed, and much of Anchorage, Alaska, the largest city in the state (with a whopping 40% of the population of Alaska!), was destroyed. Infrastructure such as water, sewer, electric and gas lines were damaged and severed, and a massive underwater landslide in Prince William Sound near Valdez caused a tsunami that resulted in 32 deaths and destruction of the port facilities. A tiny village not far from Valdez suffered terribly from a tsunami that took the lives of 23 of the 68 people that lived there. Other tsunamis hit beaches as far away as California, Hawaii, and even Japan. Kodiak experienced areas that rose by 30 feet permanently. The earthquake was felt in Florida and Texas. Sadly, 12 people were killed by the tsunami that struck California, and 4 children were killed by a tsunami in Oregon. Boats as far away as Los Angeles were damaged.
Of the total of 131 people killed due to the earthquake, only 9 were killed by direct mechanical action (being crushed and the like). The other 121 victims all died as a result of the tsunamis created by the underwater displacement of the seabed. The earthquake hit about 5:36 p.m. local time (Alaska Standard Time), one of the few fortunate factors about the event. Had the quake occurred in the middle of a regular workday, it is likely many more people may have been killed. Damage was estimated at only $116 million, under a billion dollars in today’s money. The lack of population density and spread out, built up areas certainly limited the damage to man made structures compared to what may have happened in a more populous and built up city. The city of Anchorage was about 75 miles from the epicenter of the quake, a fortunate factor as well, sparing the city from the worst of the tsunamis but resulting in much physical damage.
Thousands of aftershocks occurred in the months following the great earthquake, hundreds in the weeks after the event. At least 11 aftershocks reached a magnitude of 6.0. The mega quake remains the largest urban disaster in Alaska’s history to date. In response to the disaster, a National Tsunami Warning Center was established. When and exactly where the next major earthquake will hit is unknown, but hopefully the scientists that monitor such things will give us some warning.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever felt an earthquake? Have you ever seen the damage from an earthquake first hand? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Fountain, Henry. The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet. Crown, 2017.
Freedman, Lew. Bad Friday: The Great & Terrible 1964 Alaska Earthquake. Epicenter Press, Inc., 2013.
The featured image in this article, photograph of damage to Fourth Avenue, en:Anchorage, Alaska, caused by the en:Good Friday Earthquake, is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.