Today marks the 55th Anniversary of the Great Alaska Earthquake. Here’s the Seavey Family story as told by Dan. Thanks Toni Reitter for the idea!
We had been in Seward seven months when on Good Friday, March 27, 1964 at 5:36 p.m., the Great Alaska Earthquake occurred. Shirley was at home with the kids preparing dinner. She was scheduled to sing in the Community Choir that evening which was to perform the annual Good Friday concert. I had walked the half block north to return snowshoes I had borrowed from Tom Johnson. That afternoon, Maynard (Pete) Wilburn, a fellow teacher and I had snowshoed up the South Fork of the Snow River, located fourteen miles north of town, east of the Seward Highway.
On his table, Tom had a small glass jar filled with fifty-cent pieces, which he nonchalantly promised me I could have if I could guess their value. I rose to the challenge with equally nonchalant estimate of fifty dollars. Tom’s facial expression said it all: I had guessed correctly. That’s when we heard the first rumbles, felt the first vibrations and looked questioningly at one another. “What’s going on?” I questioned in rhetorical fashion.
Then, as with one voice we both shouted “EARTHQUAKE!”
And earthquake it was. Over two minutes of the worst shaking ever recorded in North America. Electric poles whipped like flexing fishing pole. Vehicles did a strange dance. The earth rolled and cracked as if a giant underground snake was making its way north. Tom and I held fast to whatever was handy, staggering like a couple of drunks to stay upright. Buildings teetered, their chimneys crumbled and slid to the ground in heaps of billowing dust. On the railroad dock, three blocks south, a mammoth gantry crane appeared to walk to the edge and topple into thirty fathoms of water. Things were far from settling down when I lit out for home, running wide open. It did not dawn on me until years later that Tom still owed me fifty dollars.
Our family’s earthquake experience is quite well documented in John Nance’s excellent book, On Shaky Ground, a thesis on America’s earthquake unpreparedness. On the heels of the quake came several tsunamis which, combined with uncontrollable fire, erased a large portion of our town from the map. Before dark, the night of the earthquake, male teachers had been deputized and assigned patrol duty in the downtown area as a precaution against looting. Come morning, happily, we had not a single incident to report. School closed a month and a half early. Students were sent home and grade books turned in. I was assigned emergency housing manager by Civil Defense officials and took up my post at the Army Recreation Camp on the north end of town. Within two weeks school reopened. Too many hysterical people were leaving the sinking ship. Officials reasoned that by opening the school, people would be given a reason to stay. Students and teachers did not exactly sit and stare at one another that remaining month. Likewise, not a whole lot of knowledge was imparted, either. Regardless, this strategy worked. Reconstruction was well under way by the time school adjourned a second time. Things were looking up.
As one may imagine, all kinds of stories resulted from the quake experience. Some frightening and tragic. Some humorous and strange. Most strange, unexplainable tales centered around animal behavior, like canaries refusing to sing the entire day of the quake. A horse that stood statue still in it’s paddock, gazing out to sea from mid-morning right up to the 5:36 p.m. event. One resident reported her calico tomcat, which generally prowled the neighborhood both day and night, “a real bum” in her words, decided to stay at home on quake day. He selected a never before used spot behind the couch to spend the day sleeping.
More firsthand, however, is the quake story told by young Dick Rogers. Dick reported that on that fateful Good Friday morning, his two homebody dogs had disappeared. Both Chena and Kobuk. Chena left behind her two remaining pups, sisters to our Chignik. After school, riding his Honda, Dick had scoured the town for the two waifs. No luck. He returned to his family home, located on the north-south street closest to Resurrection Bay. There he and family members took the same earthquake thrashing as the rest of us. Minutes later the Rogers had look on, horrified as the first tsunami, filled with flaming debris, swept within feet of their home. A full twenty-four hours later the two wayward dogs came home. No explanation offered.
Midnight and midday, on perhaps a half a dozen occasions following the quake, a police sound car, speakers cranked up to max, patrolled Seward streets advising residents to head for higher ground. In our case, higher ground was meant up Jefferson Street two blocks to the hospital. These rude awakenings and loud instructions were reactionary precautions prompted by violent “aftershocks” as massive portions of sunken earth snuggled into more comfortable resting positions following the original upheaval. Into the back of our Rambler went kids and puppy, all unimpressed by the gravity of the situation. Shirley and I by then, having observed the colossal devastation of our town, needed no urging. The fear was that those aftershocks would cause more destructive tidal waves. It was our good fortune that they did not.
To say the 1964 Alaska Earthquake played a hand in shaping our family’s future is really an understatement. It had, in fact, a profound effect. First, there was the quake experience itself. We shared it equally with all survivors. We grieved those we lost. We were beneficiaries of that free openhearted, openhanded spirit that is Alaska. That is Seward. We, in turn, tried to emulate that spirit.
Comparing notes with Shirley, probably ten years later, we discovered that neither of us, not even once, entertained a thought of abandoning ship, of getting out of Seward during that chaotic time immediately after the calamity. I do remember thinking that to leave a place when it needed one the most would be the act of a traitor. In short, the quake became a bonding event. The Seaveys were in Seward for the long haul.
Another significant result of the quake was that an inordinate amount of property came up for sale in the Seward area. Cheap. So many folks wanted out. A buyer’s market resulted. As somebody quipped, “A half-million dollars would have bought you the whole darn place.” Not having the requisite half-million, we settled on a five-acre purchase for fifty-five hundred on the installment plan $500.00 down and $75.00 per month plus 6% per annum.
By Dan Seavey. Excerpt from ‘The First Great Race’ Chapter 3 – Earthquake! -Digging in
Photos from NOAA, public domain