A hush may fall over the Native villages of Alaska’s Prince William Sound today as people remember twin tragedies that devastated the area on Good Friday.
The holiday may induce a sense of dread for those who survived the earthquake of 1964 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989—50 and 25 years ago respectively.
“It makes you hold your breath every year,” said LaRue Barnes, Alutiiq, of the Native Village of Eyak. “When nothing’s shaking, nothing’s happening, you can go on and celebrate.”
In 1964, Good Friday landed on March 27. At 5:36 p.m., the strongest earthquake in American history, measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale, shook southern Alaska. Its epicenter was in Prince William Sound, and the quake and subsequent tsunami devastated the Native village of Chenega.
Twenty-five years later, just after midnight on March 24, 1989—also Good Friday—the oil tanker Exxon Valdez slammed into Bligh Reef, dumping more than 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sound and damaging more than 1,300 miles of coastline.
Barnes, 59, experienced both disasters and still remembers them in surreal detail.
“It was incredibly coincidental that both of them happened on Good Friday,” she said. “It kind of makes you stop and think, to hope that nothing else will happen on that day.”
Together, the disasters—one natural and the other manmade—forever changed Native life on Prince William Sound. Although today is a time for commemoration, it’s also a day to mourn what will never be recovered.
Barnes was a child living in Eyak, a village within the town of Cordova, when the earthquake hit. She remembers the ground writhing beneath her for five minutes.
“The entire bay had been swept dry and it was rippling like ribbon candy,” she said. “Shadows and light, shadows and light.”
Waterfront property collapsed into the ocean in Valdez and Seward. In Cordova, the earth was thrust up 16 feet, drastically changing the landscape.
A tsunami followed, topping 210 feet in some areas. In Eyak, people ran for higher ground, but the tsunami arrived only as a very high tide, Barnes said. The water lifted Barnes’ house from its foundation and filled it with muddy silt.
This image shows the main part of the Chenega village site, Chenega Cove in western Prince William Sound after the earthquake on March 27, 1964. Pilings in the ground mark the former locations of homes that were swept away by the waves. The schoolhouse on high ground was undamaged.
Meanwhile, the villagers huddled together in a house on top of a hill and waited for help.
“My dad had a transistor radio,” Barnes said. “The air was dead for a long time, then as radio stations came back on, we heard what had happened.”
From the radio, Barnes heard reports of burning towns and missing people, and of the destruction in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. It took much longer, she said, to learn the fate of the Chenega.
Chenega, a hub for the Native people for 10,000 years, was the oldest continuously inhabited community in the sound. Twenty-six people, or about one-third of the town’s population, were killed. Survivors were permanently relocated.
Every Chenega resident was affected, and death touched every family, states a 2006 collection of narratives called The Day That Cries Forever. In the book, survivors recall watching their homes collapse into the sea, many times taking family members with them.
Karen Selanoff Katelnikoff was away at school when the disaster hit. Her mother called her three days later with the news that nine family members had died, including Katelnikoff’s brother and sister.
“I learned that there were to be no funerals because the giant tidal waves had swept their bodies out to sea, as if they had never existed,” she wrote. “I was numb; my young mind couldn’t grasp all that loss—the horrible scale of all that death and destruction.”
As the water retreated, the villagers assessed the damage, which stretched beyond the loss of lives and homes. It took 20 years for Chenega to be rebuilt and for survivors to make their way back to Prince William Sound. By then, the culture and language were in jeopardy.
The quake permanently altered the Native lifestyle in other coastal villages, said Dune Lankard, an Eyak Athabascan and president of the Eyak Preservation Council. One ocean shelf skidded over the top of the other, disrupting the fragile marine ecosystem.
The pristine waters once held an abundance of crab, clams and shrimp, Lankard said. That changed after the quake.
“When one plate went over the top of the other, everything underneath was crushed,” he said. “We have had no major clam industry on the delta since the 1970s.”
The sea life was just beginning to return when the Exxon Valdez spewed oil into the water, again robbing the Native people of their subsistence lifestyle.
“At the time of the spill, it was spring, the time when everything was coming back to life,” Lankard said. “It was the fullest, liveliest part of the season, then the darkest day came. That was when the ocean died.”
1989 Oil Spill
The 30-meter-long Exxon Valdez was carrying 55 million gallons of crude oil when it ran aground, causing the worst oil spill in history at the time. All eyes in the country were on Alaska, Lankard said.
“There was this black crude that was everywhere—on the beaches, in the water, everywhere you went,” he said. “I grew up in one of the most beautiful, pristine environments known to humans, one of the most bountiful ecosystems on the planet, and I watched it die before my eyes.”
Fishing ceased and all species of birds and fish were dying. The price of salmon collapsed, fishing permits plummeted and the herring population disappeared forever.
The oil traveled west, covering the equivalent of the coastline from New York City to Florida, said Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s U.S. Arctic Program.
“Eleven million gallons goes a long way,” she said. “So many of the communities depended on the ocean for food and culture. When the oil came, that was devastated.”
More than 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 otters and 22 killer whales died, Heiman said. Billions of salmon and herring eggs were destroyed and the herring fishery was wiped out.
Thirty-two animal species were monitored after the spill, and only 13 have fully recovered, according to a study published in the Alaska Law Review. At least 10 species of birds and fish have not recovered. Several, including herring, are not expected to.
Cleanup efforts topped $2.5 billion. Lankard and his brother took jobs pulling dead animals and kelp from the ocean and spraying hot water on everything.
“Seeing all this death, all the animals burned and frozen, it was like going to war,” he said.
The cleanup caused divisions among the people, Heiman said. While jobs were available, they were not evenly distributed.
“There were winners and losers, and the psychological fallout exacerbated the oil spill,” she said. “Some people got money because they were involved in the cleanup. Others were not picked.”
As many as 22,000 plaintiffs joined the civil case against Exxon, Lankard said. An Anchorage jury awarded more than $5 billion in actual and punitive damages, but Exxon then appealed 17 times, drawing out the case for nearly 20 years. In a 2008 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reduced the amount to $500 million.
The ruling was a third tragedy, said Sheri Buretta, chairwoman of the board for the Chugach Alaska Corporation, which represents more than 2,500 Alaska Natives.
“It was 20 years later and one-tenth of what was originally ruled for,” she said. “Many of the people affected died before they even saw the pittance that they got from the original settlement.”
Good Friday may serve as a somber reminder of the two disasters, but stronger emotions have emerged: hope and resilience.
“Our people were devastated by both of these events and are still trying to heal from them but we are resilient and we are still here,” Buretta said.
Lankard remembers his first look at Prince William Sound after the oil spill.
“Something came to life in me that I didn’t realize was there—a passion for this incredible way of life I grew up taking for granted,” he said. “Much like many Americans have an American dream, we had an Alaskan dream, an Eyak dream, an Athabascan dream that had been intact for 3,500 years. Our community is resilient. We survive. We rebuild.”