Fifty years ago today, in 1964, Alaska was hit by the most powerful earthquake America had ever seen. The damage was unprecedented: 139 lives were lost, buildings were destroyed beyond repair and some areas ended up permanently underwater. Dana Stabenow was just 12 years old at the time, but can still remember every detail...
I'm from Seldovia, a village in southcentral Alaska. There is no road, you could and still can get to it only by boat or plane.
I was 12 on March 27, 1964, and after school at my house I was having a birthday party. We were sitting around the kitchen table, my mother dishing up cake and ice cream, and I was unwrapping my birthday presents when my best friend Kathy nudged me and pointed at a picture on the wall. It was swinging back and forth, back and forth.
I realized the whole house was moving back and forth, back and forth.
Seldovia is located within a hundred miles of four active volcanoes and we were all pretty earthquake savvy, but this was obviously a big one and we all started getting ready to run.
"Everyone stay right where you are!" my mother shouted.
The house kept moving, back and forth, back and forth.
And then it slowed.
And then it seemed to stop.
There was a collective exhalation of breath. Somebody said, "Wow, that was a big one," and the words were barely out of her mouth when it started up again. This time it was a lot faster and up and down, like a jackhammer. A curious thing about earthquakes is how loud they are, and this was deafening, the earth grinding and rumbling and tearing outside, and inside the cupboards and refrigerator doors banging open and dishes and cans crashing to the floor, and the house itself creaking and groaning.
The girls were screaming. "Everybody out of the house!" my mother shouted.
Outside the spruce trees were snapping back and forth like whips. The ground was shaking so violently we couldn’t stand up without holding on to the stair railing and some of us were knocked off our feet anyway. Outside the gate the earth opened up into a two-foot chasm and closed again.
And then it stopped.
Mom tried to call her sister in Cordova, but the phones were out. It would be a week before we heard from her, when a ham radio operator in Anchorage contacted us with news that everyone was okay.
An hour later the mayor knocked at our door to tell us there was a tsunami warning and that everyone was evacuating to the school gym. It was the biggest building on the highest ground in town. Everyone went there, with the exception of the fishermen, who took their boats out into the Kachemak.
It was dark when the tsunami hit. I was standing outside the gym, holding the hand of my mother’s friend, Maka, listening to it, this continuous, menacing growl of an immense, moving mass of water. It was very distinctive, unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. I can still hear it.
Seldovia was lucky in that the mouth of the bay was perpendicular to the direction of the wave, so what we got was mostly backwash. It was still enough to clean the bottom shelves of all the buildings on the boardwalk, and to break our brand-new small boat harbor into pieces. The fishermen were towing floats back into the bay for weeks afterward.
But the real cost of the earthquake was realized only the following month, with the spring tides in April. The earthquake had caused the land to drop five and a half feet, which meant that at spring and fall tides from then on, Seldovia’s boardwalk and buildings would be under water.
There were two options. One was to raise up the boardwalk and the buildings to above the new tide line. The other, promoted by the SBA and the Army Corps of Engineers, was to tear everything down, built a dike, and blow up Seldovia’s coastline to use for fill to create a new downtown building site. The town voted that fall. The second option won. One of my enduring memories of that time is standing in front of the Int-hout’s house, holding hands with Kathy, tears running down our faces, as they dynamited Capp’s Hill.
I left Seldovia when I graduated from high school in 1969. I don’t go back that often. Some things are better left to memory.
Dana Stabenow is the author of the bestselling Kate Shugak detective series, set against Alaska's dramatic scenery. The latest book in the series, Bad Blood, is out in hardback, paperback and ebook formats.