I love history so when I saw this anniversary, I had to write about it. As someone who was born and raised in Southern California and lived through several big earthquakes, it’s hard to quantify or qualify what a magnitude 9.2 earthquake means. In Los Angeles, they always talked about the ‘big one’ but nothing remotely close to a 9.2 ever hit the Greater L.A. area in the five decades I lived there.
However, that’s exactly what occurred 50 years ago today just east of Anchorage, Alaska. It’s simply called the Alaskan Earthquake or Great Quake and is the largest earthquake in the history of the United States. It happened on Good Friday, March 27th, 1964, but there was nothing good about it.
3 minute shake
It hit at 5:36 pm and shook the earth for three minutes. I can remember earthquakes that may have rumbled for no more than 30 seconds so three minutes would seem to be forever and likely there were folks praying a lot, figuring this was it, considering it WAS Good Friday. The fact that ‘only’ 139 died from the results of the quake – mostly because of the tsunamis – is in large part because there just weren’t that many people living in the region (less than 100,000 for the area). Again, most people died because of tsunamis that rose as high as 220 feet above the normal sea level. No, that’s not a typo (source: state of Alaska). It’s was nearly as tall as the 22 story Conoco-Phillips building in Anchorage – currently the tallest building in the state.
Felt thousands of miles away, it should be noted that Anchorage had 11 aftershocks of 6.2 or greater … the first day! It was at least a year later before the aftershocks subsided. The ground literally sucked in and ate up what was above it, while at the same time, land shifts measuring 20 feet or more were pushed in the air. Fissures both moving up like new hills appeared and yet cracks too deep to see down were everywhere. What was at one time, submerged ocean bottoms became cliffs rising above the new shoreline. And still other areas that once sat above the coast were now underwater.
Our own reminders
On the California Central Coast, a little over 10 years ago, our town suffered through the San Simeon Earthquake which registered 6.6 magnitude. It devastated older portions of the Downtown area of Paso Robles here in wine country. When you consider how many multitudes more powerful the Alaskan earthquake was, it’s hard to imagine that anything would have been standing – older buildings or not.
We had another anniversary recently with the strongest earthquake in California over the last couple of decades, the Northridge Earthquake, which occurred January 17th 1994. It was a 6.7 and happened at 4:30 in the morning when a vast majority of Californians were asleep, which made it more dangerous and deadly.
In Paso Robles, we’re less than a half an hour’s drive from the big daddy of all faults: the San Andreas. Running southeast to northwest, it runs in the center of the state from the Imperial Valley near the California and Mexico border at the Salton Sea, through the Southern California deserts and mountains and inland Central Coast, right to San Francisco and then along the coast of Northern California before ending just south of Eureka.
An area some 20 miles east as the crow flies from Paso called Parkfield, has a massive amount of instrumentation for research of the San Andreas (source: USGS). Parkfield has very few residents because the place shakes constantly. Parkfield had a 6.0 almost 10 years ago. Do these things happen in 10 year increments?
When the ‘Big One’ will happen on the San Andreas is still uncertain. Most believe that the Southern California portion of the massive fault is where the spot for the big one will occur next. Regardless of the speculation, anyone in California should be diligent and aware of just what might or will likely happen.
History repeats itself and earthquakes are no different. I’ll continue to contemplate and try wrapping my mind around what a three minute quake registering 9.2 is like. The Big One? The Alaskan Earthquake was the biggest … so far.
Daryle W. Hier