March 27th marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Great Alaskan Earthquake, the strongest earthquake to ever hit North America. This 9.2 magnitude quake was the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded, the first being the 1960 earthquake in Chile. The earthquake struck at 5:36pm and lasted over four minutes. Strong aftershocks were felt throughout the South-central Alaska region for days and weeks after the initial earthquake.The earthquake itself was responsible for 15 deaths and 124 people perished as a result of subsequent tsunamis. The tsunami death toll includes 5 killed in Oregon and 13 killed by the tsunami in California.
After 50 years, it can be challenging for visitors to still see the effects of the earthquake, but if you know what you are looking for, you still can. In Anchorage be sure to take an Anchorage city tour that includes a stop at Earthquake Park, or visit the park on your own if you have a car. The park is located in an area where homes were lost due to liquefaction – the clay and silt combination that the houses were built on liquefied as the land shook and slid into Cook Inlet. Earthquake Park features a unique earthquake exhibit and you can still see the uneven land left by the effects of the quake. In addition, The Anchorage Museum is featuring an exhibit called Riskland on effects and science behind the 1964 earthquake.
Heading south from Anchorage along the Seward Highway you can still see areas affected by the earthquake. The town of Girdwood now sits back in the valley as its original location near the Turnagain Arm dropped nearly 8 feet during the earthquake. Dead trees still stand that were killed by saltwater that flooded the area when the ground sank. The Seward Highway required reconstruction and fill to raise the highway above the new tide mark. After you cross the Twenty Mile River bridge watch for the remains of the original town site of Portage on the west side of the highway. You can see some deteriorating buildings that were destroyed and a rusting truck among the flats. Between 50 and 100 residents were forced to relocate after the earthquake caused the ground to drop between 6 and 12 feet in this area.
The port town of Seward suffered greatly during and after the earthquake. During the earthquake a section of the waterfront fell into Resurrection Bay. In addition, the rail yard was destroyed by a tsunami. A fire at the oil tank farm in Seward caused by this natural disaster was responsible for 12 deaths. While in Seward, visit the train car that was picked up by a tidal wave and deposited 150 yards inland where it still sits today.
Though this massive earthquake was long ago you can still see some sights it created. Alaska has earthquakes every day but primarily they are so small they go unnoticed. It is believed that another great earthquake such as the 1964 earthquake is hundreds of years away!