Today is the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Alaska Earthquake.

I still remember it, though I was over 300 miles from the epicenter, on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks where I was a graduate student. I had a basement apartment that year, and shortly before dinner the hangers started rattling in the closet. I’d never been in an earthquake before, but when the shaking continued it occurred to me that a basement might not be the safest place. It took me a while to grab a coat and climb the stairs, but when I got outdoors, the flagpole and trees were still swaying and the ground was still shaking.

Were earthquakes supposed to last that long? I wondered as I headed for the university dining commons. The sidewalks were icy, and I slipped and fell, dislocating my knee (a common occurrence at that time) and doing something to my elbow. As usual, I asked a passing student to help me straighten the leg while I put pressure to get the kneecap back in place. (At this time the joint was so used to dislocating I was able to get up and walk as soon as the dislocation was reduced, though I trouble getting everything in place without help.)

In the cafeteria all of the discussion was about the earthquake, and some pretty wild rumors were circulating. (Anchorage had fallen into the ocean; other cities in south central Alaska were wiped out.) As I recall, the phone lines were out and it took a while to find out what had really happened—which was bad enough, even if not as bad as the worst rumors.

Television would have been no help even if I had owned a set. This was before satellite communications, and television news was flown to Alaska (and within Alaska) on tapes to be shown the next day if we were lucky. Even the radio news was pretty confused at first, as most of the news from Anchorage arrived (I think) via shortwave radio hams. (That was definitely true a few years later during the Fairbanks flood.)

As it turned out, Anchorage suffered most from the direct effects of the shaking, but the greatest losses of life were in coastal communities – Valdez, Seward, Kodiak – which were struck by tidal waves triggered by the earthquake.

I’ll be taking an adult learning class next month about the earthquake, and while I understand the basic geophysics of what happened, I hope to learn more. Maybe I’ll do a blog on it. But for now, I wanted to remember the 50th anniversary of the Good Friday Earthquake.

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