Cordova and the
Great Alaskan Earthquake

A true story of how a school teacher and his family rode out the 1964 earthquake in Cordova, Alaska.

cordova and the great alaska earthquake

I was a school teacher in Cordova for 8 years.

The following is our families experience about the 1964 Alaskan earthquake.

On Friday school got out 1/2 day early that week because of it being Good Friday. We had just sat down to dinner when we felt the house shake, but no big deal, when every time a Cat (bulldozer) went up the road in front of the house, which was quite often, the house rattled and shook. I jumped up to see if it was a Cat-bulldozer and the road was empty. It was then that Glee and I realized it must be an earthquake.  

Having been in three minor quakes earlier in my life, I realized the strongest part of the house was the doorway. Glee took two kids and I took two kids and each of us stood in doorways. She the one between the kitchen and livening room and me the one between the snow room and living room.

Two of the wall hanging clocks were banging against the wall, so I made my two kids promise not to move, and I ran into the living room and put both of the clocks on the floor. In returning to my doorway, I looked out the front window and saw the school across the street going up and down with the ground waves. It was not only amazing but scary for the ground under our house was also doing the same thing.

We did not lose electric power or water, and felt very lucky.

The great Alaskan earthquake hit Cordova at 5:36 p.m. with a 9.2 magnitude, the second largest recorded in the  world, at that time, lasting 4 minutes 38 seconds but seemed like a lot longer.

The Cordova harbor dropped about 7 feet, making it inaccessible for the fishing boats and canneries to use. The docks and moorage areas were “high and dry”. We lost a lot of boats due to damage from being tossed around on top of each other.

When the earth settled down, the main concern was the welfare of the residents and of fire and safety of the buildings in the village.

When I realized that my family was Ok I dressed for rough work and went out to survey the damage and to check on people. It looked like the hospital, church, Mt Eccles Elementary and the post office were Ok but closer to water, on Prince William Sound the damage was awful.

One of our church families home was severely damaged and finding that they were all right I sent them up to our house. The Baylor's house was in question if it would stay standing, so we had a couple of families sleeping on our floors. Our kids give up their bed for older adults.

We had no idea how far the earthquake had affected Alaska so most of the adults spent the night around our kitchen table listening to the one radio station that we could get. We are usually not able to get that station, but we found out afterwards that the Coast Guard in Yakutat, a village south of us about 50 miles, took over that frequency as an emergency measure, and so we listened to what they were able to relay to us for Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, Valdez and Juneau.

Our place became sort of the communication hub for Cordova since our Cordova radio station, KLAM was knocked out due to the earthquake. KLAM had a very limited broadcast range in both sending and receiving.

The next day, Saturday, we became aware of the disaster that had hit two of our closest native villages, Chenega and Afognak.

Both of those villages were basically washed away in the tsunami that hit after the quake. Chenega lost 25 of their 76 residents and Afognak did not keep numbers, so we did not know how many survived there.  The survivors from the two villages, with the help of the Coast Guard, made their way to Cordova. They arrived with only the clothes on their backs, were scared, tired, hungry and grieving for their losses in people and the villages.

We opened up the Christian Center gym and used emergency cots, blankets, and dry food that we had been storing for Civil Defense use, and they moved into the Center.

They told of awful stories of survival.

One aged grandmother told me that she had her twin granddaughters, who were 5 years old, with her for the day, and she clung to a tree with one on each side of her. She lost one of them and was able to get a hold of her and then lost her completely when one of the huge tsunami waves hit her. She kept saying over and over “I had her, I lost her I had again, and then she was gone.”

Alaska Native Service, FEMA, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Alaska State Department of Human Resources people descended upon us.

FEMA worked both with the businesses and with the people from the islands while the other three  worked with the natives that were living in the Christian Center or displaced persons who were staying with friends or relatives in Cordova.

Each family was interviewed and given options for solving their housing problem. They could return to their villages and housing help would be given them through FEMA. There were portable manufactured homes and the infra structure would be rebuilt, or they could relocate in Cordova, Anchorage or some other local as long as it was in the state of Alaska.

I would say the the majority wanted to return to their villages, with a couple that I knew chose to stay in Cordova. 

The deadline of August 15th was given to have all the displaced persons out of the Christian Center and relocated to the place of their choice. I do not know who set that deadline, I believe it came down from a collective decision of the agencies that were involved.  

After the first week following the quake, things settled down into a regular routine.

Rebuilding started in Cordova for the dock and homes lost, the displaced natives were a very resilient group, and begin to live the best they could in their crowed situation and to make decisions for their own future.

The one teacher who was teaching in the Chenega Village held some classes for the displaced children. It was visiting the Christian Center one day when I was invited by some native women to enjoy fish-head soup. I honestly did not want to, but also did not want to refuse an offering gift.

It really was good, much to my surprise, and they were kind enough to make sure I got the broth and the seaweed and left the fish-head parts.

I had radiograms again from ACS to both sets of parents to let them know we were all fine and did not occur any damage or loss to our house, so we thought.

Alaska State sent in engineers to access the damaged buildings and to determine the safety of all the buildings in Cordova including our rental house.

The assessment of our house was that we needed to find a new home. Cordova is built on the side of a hill composed mainly of grant rock, but there are patches of muskeg. We were advised that they were not certain our house would be safe when the spring thaw arrived and the muskeg below part of our house would become mush.

We continued to have after shocks.

In the day following the big quake we had 11 tremors with the magnitude of 6.2 and small tremors continued for the next couple of months.

I am now living in Salem, Oregon and as of this writing, I am 85 years old.

“We lived in Cape Yakataga, Alaska to the south of Cordova when the quake hit. I can still remember that day and time like it happened yesterday.”

Mike G.

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