Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Earthquake! Part 2

Tomorrow is the fiftieth anniversary of the Good Friday Alaska Earthquake of March 27, 1964, with its epicenter in Prince William Sound. The hardest hit area stretched along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska from Kodiak to Valdez, including Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. My family lived in Seward at that time. Last week, in memory of that devastating earthquake which forever changed Alaska as well as my own life, I began blogging excerpts about their experiences from my book, Frontiers of Faith.*

Last week, we left my family in a line of cars trying to escape from the burning town. They could see a tsunami racing toward their car. My mother said the crest of the wave looked as though a giant hand was shoving boats, houses, railroad cars, and burning oil up and over the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the lagoon road, the only way out of town.

Then the line of traffic stopped!

No traffic was coming from the opposite direction, so my dad quickly pulled out into that lane to pass the line of stopped automobiles. Just as their car reached a little knoll at the far side of the lagoon, the tsunami roared in behind them smashing all those houses, boats, railroad cars, and other debris against the cliffs. The water swirled around the car's tires, but they were high enough to avoid the brunt of the wave.

Horrified, they glimpsed several cars behind them caught up in the wave, tumbled like toys, and swept toward the cliffs. Then, they noticed that the wave had carried the fiery debris far into the forest at the head of the bay, setting the trees on fire.

My dad had driven only a short ways when the high school principal flagged them down. "The bridges are out!" he hollered. "You're welcome to come to my house in Forest Acres."

A series of three bridges provided the only way out of the area set afire by the tsunami. The earthquake had caused the roadbeds to sink six to eight feet lower than the bridges. The evacuees were trapped in the burning forest. Then God intervened. A third tsunami extinguished the fire!

At the entrance to Forest Acres, a housing development on the outskirts of Seward, my parents met up with my grandparents. Darkness had descended on the stricken community, although fires and explosions lit the sky all night as the Texaco oil tanks, like erupting volcanoes, blew their tops.

The family spent the long, harrowing night with about forty other people in the home of the high school principal. They had no lights and no heat. Though the calendar said it was spring, the Alaskan night was wintry cold. My family was thankful to be together. Many spent that long night not knowing if other family members were alive. Some were stranded on rooftops.

About noon the next day, the weary survivors were allowed to return to their devastated city. Many found only piles of rubble or empty lots where their homes had once stood. The streets were full of shattered houses, smashed boats and cars, upended railroad cars, and railroad ties and piling from the docks stacked up like a giant game of Pickup Sticks. The huge oil storage tanks continued to explode for several days. Soot and ashes blackened the town. Numerous aftershocks further terrorized the residents.

When my grandparents returned to their home, they discovered their neighbor's house had been extensively damaged by the seismic sea waves. Debris dropped by the waves surrounded their own house within a couple of inches, but no water had entered their house even though theirs was slightly lower than the neighbors'. God had miraculously spared their home. Aside from the broken antique dishes, the only damage was to their chimney and the underpinnings of the floor, which was easily repaired. The church and parsonage also survived with minor damage, although several church families had lost their homes. For several weeks, however, everyone was without power, water, and sewer.

When the rubble was cleared away from the waterfront, nothing was left. Ninety-five percent of the industrial area had been destroyed. The canneries, the docks, the boat harbor, and the railroad yards had vanished. In addition, 84 homes in a town with a population of 1,800 had been reduced to rubble. Thirty lives had been lost.

Twelve bridges along the Seward Highway had collapsed. The land had sunk approximately eight feet, which allowed the tide to wash out huge sections of the railroad and the highway. Thus, the tourist trade was cut off, no ships could dock, and there was no place to process fish and shrimp. The economic devastation could not have been more complete. But hardy Alaskans vowed to rebuild. And they did.

I was away at college when the earthquake hit. I had spent the week with my roommate in Coos Bay, Oregon, which was also hit by a seismic wave generated by that earthquake. My parents thought I was there, but we had gone to Portland for the weekend. I wondered if I still had a family not realizing that they wondered if they still had their firstborn daughter.

To read how the Earthquake affected me for the rest of my life, read my five previous blogs dated March and April 2013, "In a Matter of Minutes, Parts 1-5."

*To order Frontiers of Faith, visit my website

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