At the Very Beginning of the Great Alaska Earthquake
Jon Mooallem on the Disaster of 1964
Snow was falling as Genie turned right on C Street and headed downtown to the bookstore with Wins. The city was quiet. Most people had already left work for the start of the holiday weekend. The Salvation Army had just concluded its Good Friday worship. Volunteers at the Third Avenue Elks Club Lodge were coloring Easter eggs for their upcoming hunt. And with a couple of hours until curtain time for Frank Brink’s Our Town, one young actor was alone in the theater at Alaska Methodist University, tidying the costume closet beside the stage. It was 5:36 pm. The traffic light turned red as Genie and her son approached the intersection of C Street and Ninth.
The car started bucking as soon as Genie’s foot touched the brake. “Oh no,” she said, disgusted. She assumed she’d blown a tire. She already resented having to run this errand for Wins, and now she steeled herself for more hassle. Genie gripped the wheel. Wins held on to his seat beside her. For a moment, they bounced violently, without speaking a word.
The shaking relented. Then, suddenly: a forceful, heaving jolt. It knocked the traffic lights out; power in Anchorage was gone. The motion turned merciless, omnidirectional. The initial shuddering swelled into what one report described as “a savage, grinding roll.” The electrical lines overhead started snapping like whips. Wins’s eyes went wide. “What is it?” the boy asked. Genie looked over her shoulder, toward the mountains. She tested another theory, less surely this time: “It must be a hard wind,” she said.
Genie rolled down her window and heard a cacophony of clanging. She looked across the street. A line of cars parked at the service station were bouncing into one another and separating again. They looked like a grotesque accordion, Genie thought, opening and closing. A man and two women came out of the liquor store to her left. They did not seem to be walking, exactly, but lurching. Then they fell down.
Genie’s car was hopping more ferociously now, leaving the ground, edging into the adjacent lane. She tightened her fists around the steering wheel to keep it from jerking. She worried the car might be flipped on its side. Outside, the three pedestrians were back on their feet. The man was trying to protect the two women at a corner of the building out of which they’d just blundered, hugging each one to an adjoining wall and clinging to the brickwork to brace himself. But then the building swayed away from the three of them—the building itself moved! Genie watched it bending left, then right. And as it did, she saw a crack open in the masonry over the man’s head, then reclose.Small earthquakes were familiar occurrences in Alaska, yet all around Anchorage, the recognition of this one seemed to flower in people slowly, and meekly, arriving only at the tail end of some stupefied, time-stretching lag.
The world and everything in it appeared to be convulsing. Genie’s eyes were seeing it, but her mind couldn’t organize all the discordant information into a coherent story. Suddenly, through the windshield, she watched the road roll away from the car. The pavement didn’t break apart; it was still solid. But it rolled, wavelike, as though some humpbacked shadow creature were surging under its surface, heading for town.
Finally, Genie found a word that could fasten this chaos together in her mind. She said the word aloud: “This is an earthquake.”
The onset of the quake unfolded like this for many people. Small earthquakes were familiar occurrences in Alaska, yet all around Anchorage, the recognition of this one seemed to flower in people slowly, and meekly, arriving only at the tail end of some stupefied, time-stretching lag.
The earthquake overwhelmed people the way the strongest emotions do. It was pure sensation, coming on faster than the intellect’s ability to register it. Big Winston had been kneeling at his used car lot, preparing to push a vehicle that wouldn’t start. Mistaking the physical sensation of his body heaving from side to side for dizziness, he deduced that he was having a heart attack. Another woman watched her cast-iron pot of moose stew hop autonomously off the burner, as a neighbor girl outside yelled at a large tree to stop moving. A woman driving on Northern Lights Boulevard tried to puzzle out why “the road wouldn’t stay still.” So many people’s stories described a sluggish process of discovery: you had to discover the earthquake, even though it had already been shaking you for what felt like a very long time.
It was amazing what details people noticed—the focal points their minds chose to lock on to when the moving world went blurry. Across town, the mayor of Anchorage stared at a raven outside his car window, watching it try to land on a thrashing streetlight for several seconds until, finally, the bird gave up and soared off. On Fourth Avenue, a high school track star watched the window of a stationery store rattle and explode, then stood there calmly admiring the perfect hurdling form of the man who came leaping out of it. And at J. C. Penney, a 15-year-old in the elevator with some friends watched a book that one of them had dropped suddenly levitate off the floor and hang weightless in midair right in front of him. For a split second, it was like they were in orbit. The elevator was falling.
People discovered it was impossible to walk. The earth rebuked them, splaying their legs, shrugging them off, thrusting their knees to their chins. One man had to run in order to get enough momentum to balance—“like walking on a barrel,” he explained. Drivers pulled over, opened their car doors, then fell straight out of them like bundles of newspapers dropped on a street corner. “I had a feeling of being completely defenseless,” one man said. An employee at the gas company’s headquarters scampered outside only to find himself dodging a driverless two-and-a-half-ton truck. A woman wrapped herself around a parking meter in front of the Federal Building on Fourth Avenue and screamed for all sinners to repent.
Evergreen trees lashed back and forth like stalks of wheat. Muddy water burbled into the street where pipes had split open. On the north side of town, near the railroad, a woman watched as tank cars rolled “fearsomely back and forth on their tracks” and ice floes in Cook Inlet “flung against each other as though a gargantuan hand were splashing in a puddle.” The five-story Hillside Apartments building appeared to shiver. The long, low-slung Ben Franklin variety store moved “up and down in sections, just like a caterpillar,” one observer said—flexing, recoiling, but somehow remaining intact—while the Arrow Lumber Company building, at the corner of Fireweed Lane and Barrow, collapsed in a simple, downward rush.
The earth yawned open and swallowed cars. One woman in Turnagain, watching hers vanish, said “good” out loud—she’d never liked that car. But then the ground thrust upward and ejected the vehicle again. Another woman found herself jumping over three-foot-wide crevasses as they split open in front of her, escaping to momentary safety again and again, cradling her baby the whole time. She noticed, fortuitously, that each new rupture was preceded by a warning sound: like “if you dropped a dish and it didn’t break, just bounced,” she explained.
The sounds of the earthquake were part of the overall dreamlike incoherence. Many people mistook the low growl of the churning earth for a nuclear bomb. Alaska, with its strategic location and military bases, had always been a presumptive Soviet target, and many residents now assumed the day had come: warheads were finally being lobbed at them from across the Bering Sea. “I don’t know how you’d describe it,” one man later said of the earthquake’s otherworldly roar. “It’s a rumble, and a slithery sound all mixed up—and it’s got some crackle to it, too.” One woman remembered only absolute quiet, though she conceded that it was possible she had momentarily gone deaf from the shock. A third person reported that he “was not aware of any unusual noise other than people calling for help.”
Southeast of Anchorage, a small community called Portage was destroyed when most of its buildings dropped seven feet into the ground and were inundated by the tide. In the town of Valdez, the quake picked up a freighter that had just docked at the port and, as one onlooker put it, “tossed it like I used to toss boats in the bathtub.” In Seward, an oil tank farm exploded, and the town’s entire industrial waterfront—docks, warehouses, fish-processing plants—crumbled into the water at once. Then later, after the spilled oil and debris ignited into a roaring fire, a tremendous wave barreled in, pushing the entire mess inland to clobber the town. “It was an eerie thing to see,” one man said, “a huge tide of fire washing ashore, setting a high-water mark in flame, and then sucking back.”
The tsunamis had started. In the town of Kodiak, walls of water triggered by the quake would smash into downtown for several hours that Friday evening, obliterating buildings and hurling fishing boats into the streets. Several small Alaska Native villages were erased. The 200 people of Old Harbor, on Kodiak Island, survived by clambering to higher ground, en masse, as four separate waves pummeled their village. Kaguyak lost three of its 45 residents and was washed out completely. Survivors huddled around their children on a hillside to keep them from freezing.
They were finally picked up by a crab boat the next morning after fourteen hours in the cold, and had the captain stop so they could gather a few artifacts from their church that they’d spotted floating far offshore. Another village, Chenega, lost 23 people—a third of its population—when it was struck by a seventy-foot wave. The following morning, a pilot flying over the area would see hundreds of red snapper—deepwater fish—that had bobbled to the surface, knocked dead by a pressure wave.
The Great Alaska Earthquake, as it would become known, was the most powerful earthquake ever measured at the time, and remains the second most powerful one to date. Its magnitude would be measured at 9.2; its epicenter was 75 miles east of Anchorage, and shallow: only about fifteen and a half miles underground. For thousands of years, the Pacific Plate had been crunching its way under the opposing edge of the North American Plate—lurching at a low angle, and slowly, about two or two and a half inches every year. Cyclically, over time, an unsustainable amount of pressure would build up, then suddenly release. This was one of those moments; the plates slipped—hard.
One seismologist would later explain that the earthquake was so violent it “made the earth ring like a bell.” Its energy seemed to reverberate everywhere, disrupting or reshaping the surface of the planet as it went. An uninhabited island southeast of Anchorage was knocked nearly seventy feet out of its original position. Most of the landmass of North America momentarily jostled upward, in some places by as much as two inches. The quake shook the water in wells around the world, tripping gauges in more than seven hundred far-flung locations, including Puerto Rico, England, Belgium, Libya, and Israel. (“Water levels in wells as far away as South Africa jumped abruptly,” a National Academy of Sciences report would note.) In Baton Rouge, a homeowner noticed his swimming pool jiggle.
Twenty-three hundred miles south of Anchorage, in an elegant, modernist ranch home in Pasadena, California, a 63-year-old man and his wife were settling down in their living room with cocktails. The man was an odd duck—a rumpled intellectual and avid nudist who wrote many abjectly bad love poems about women who were not his wife. But he was also an accomplished seismologist—he’d developed the scale on which the magnitude of earthquakes is measured—and was passionate and single-minded enough about his work to have installed a seismograph in his living room. The machine was cumbersome and ugly, mounted on its own cabinet and topped by a large metallic tumbler. He’d wedged the device between a grandfather clock and a stylishly upholstered club chair.
The man’s wife hated the seismograph—she initially regarded it as “a rather brutally coarse intrusion among her neat furnishings,” he wrote. He insisted that she had come to appreciate having this apparatus in her living room—but, really, who knows: the man was not necessarily someone whose sensitivity to the emotions of others should be trusted.
Now, at 7:42 pm—5:42 pm Anchorage time—as they sat together, listening to a concert on the radio, the man looked over and saw the seismograph’s needle jerking.
“There’s a great earthquake recording,” Charles Richter remarked to his wife.
“Yes?” Lillian Richter replied sleepily. He was talking over the concert.
Excerpt from THIS IS CHANCE! by Jon Mooallem, copyright © 2020 by Jon Mooallem. Used with permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.