This Date in Native History: On March 27, 1964, the strongest earthquake in American history, measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale, shook southern Alaska, killing an initial 15 people. The quake, which lasted as long as five minutes by some accounts, triggered a deadly tsunami that cost an additional 113 lives and devastated the Native village of Chenega, an island hamlet in Prince William Sound. Sixty-eight people lived in Chenega at the time of the quake; 26 of them were killed, or more than one-third of the population.
The shaking was registered as far away as Australia and Argentina, but Chenega suffered the highest percentage of lost lives than any other community.
The original village was the oldest continuously inhabited Native community in the area, states a 2006 collection of narratives about the quake and tsunami called The Day That Cries Forever. Although other cities hit hard by the disaster were rebuilt, the survivors of Chenega were relocated and never returned to live in their ancestral home.
“Some survivors do not openly or willingly discuss that tragic day,” the book states. “To them, it is an unspeakable matter, better kept inside.”
The Chenega people lived in Prince William Sound for more than 10,000 years. The village included a Bureau of Indian Affairs building, a Russian Orthodox church, a store and a small schoolhouse on top of the hill. The buildings were sturdy, constructed from logs and built to withstand the arctic winters, states a 1964 documentary produced by the San Francisco television station KPIX-TV.
Chenega, which means “beneath the mountain,” was self-sufficient, the documentary states. It had a working government and town council, and the people spoke English and the Suqcestun Sugpiaq dialect of the Alutiiq language.
Known as the Good Friday Earthquake, the quake hit at 5:36 p.m., said Natasha Ruppert, a seismologist with the Alaska Earthquake Information Center. Its epicenter was off shore, in Prince William Sound, and it ruptured a fault line measuring 800 kilometers long and 200 kilometers wide.
“There was no warning whatsoever,” Ruppert said. “The waves came almost right after the shaking started. People didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t know waves could come with an earthquake. They were not prepared.”
The quake was felt over an area of about 1.3 million square kilometers. In Anchorage, about 80 miles from the epicenter, streets broke in half and sinkholes formed, swallowing buildings and cars. Thirty blocks of Alaska’s largest city were severely damaged.
In other areas, landslides destroyed homes and disrupted lives. Miles of coastal property collapsed into the sea and Alaska’s landscape was permanently changed. Aftershocks as high as 6.0 on the Richter scale continued to hit for several days afterward.
Residents of Chenega were preparing for dinner when the earthquake struck. Waves as high as 100 feet then crashed onto the shore, sending the people running for the schoolhouse on top of the hill. The school was the only building to survive the tsunami.
Margaret Borodkin was 35 when the earthquake hit. In her recollection of the disaster, recorded in The Day That Cries Forever, Borodkin said she sought shelter in a doorway but something fell on her and pinned her to the floor.
“After a few minutes I began to hear a loud sound,” she writes. “I couldn’t see because I was trapped on the floor, but it must have been the giant tidal wave. When it struck the house, it was as if a bomb blew up. Everything was crashing and rolling and smashing.”
Borodkin lost consciousness and was washed into the bay. When she woke up, she was floating on what she believed to be the wall of a house.
“One minute I was in my house and the next thing I know I was floating on the sea,” she writes.
Other survivors recalled watching their homes collapse into the sea—many times taking family members with them.
The book, compiled 40 years after the quake, reveals that everyone with ties to Chenega was altered that day. Even younger generations who did not experience the disaster continue to feel the trauma.
“The three waves wiped out everything except the school building, which stands even today as a testimony that there was once beautiful life on an island that holds many dark secrets,” writes Donia Abbott, whose mother was 3 when the earthquake hit. Abbott’s mother lost two sisters in the tsunami and Abbott writes about the void where her aunts should have been.
The tsunami “stripped the village of everything: its people, their trust, their feelings and, most importantly, their home.”
Twenty years after the disaster, a group of former villagers returned and established a new town called Chenega Bay, built on Evan’s Island. The new village is built on higher ground, and residents continue to work to rebuild a strong community and revitalize the language and culture.
The 1964 quake, which resulted in as much as $400 million in property loss, was the second-largest in recorded history, next to the 1960 quake in Chile that measured 9.5 on the Richter scale.
In the video below Peter Kompoff talks about how the earthquake affected his family:
This story was originally published March 27, 2014.