Cordova Chronicles: A wave of news from the 7.9 earthquake

Community responded calmly, and the tsunami never happened

Damage in Odiak Slough caused by the tide surge following the 9.2 earthquake on 27 March 1964. Cordova Historical Society photo
Damage in Odiak Slough caused by the tide surge following the 9.2 earthquake on 27 March 1964. Cordova Historical Society photo

While the 7.9 earthquake that struck at 12:32 a.m. on January 23 in the Gulf of Alaska 170 miles southeast of Kodiak did not generate a tsunami, it certainly generated a wave of news.

Earthquakes are measured on what is called the Richter Scale, and the really big one that devastated Prince William Sound and many other locations in Southcentral Alaska back on March 27, 1964 measured 9.2.

So, 7.9 is getting up there.

We live on Odiak Slough. The roof of our nearby old boathouse can be seen against the horizon in a Cordova Historical Society photo showing damage in the area as a result of the tide surge that followed the ’64 earthquake.

So naturally, we took the evacuation notice seriously. Cordova was uplifted roughly seven feet by the 1964 earthquake. Prior to that, big tides flooded Odiak Slough.  Sternwheelers docked at a cannery and then railroad facilities where the hospital is now located, and those waters reached to almost touch the floor of our warehouse.

These days, a tide surge caused by an earthquake would have to be at least seven feet or more in height to impact structures as the 1964 earthquake did.

That, of course, excludes facilities and structures that have since been built in the new tide zone.

Nonetheless, we headed up to Sunnyside Drive, above the far end of the city airport, to camp out and wait with our daughter Gretchen Carpenter, her husband Tom, and our granddaughter Ellie.

Before leaving, I stuck my head out the door a couple times to listen for the tsunami warning siren. It was garbled, and far quieter than it was when scaring Ellie during its noon Wednesday tests, when she was much younger and spending time here at Grandma’s Day Care Center.

Later we learned that ice and snow packed in the siren itself, plus the dampening effect of the weather, were part of the reason it sounded so strange.

At the intersection to the highway below the high school, we noticed the electronic sign board mentioned practice for the Tsunami Bowl in Seward.

No kidding. Some coincidence. Turns out this is an academic competition centering on Ocean Sciences that attracts teams from all over Alaska. I would imagine they might ask a few questions about big waves.

KLAM was carrying updates on the car radio, with J.R. doing the play by play. The radio station is located right near us on Odiak Slough, but J.R. didn’t have to worry about being in harm’s way. He runs the station remotely from Fairbanks, about as far from an Alaska tsunami as you can get. He also does the morning news on a Fairbanks TV station, and undoubtedly looked a little tired when he stepped in front of the cameras several hours later.

We drove through Main Street to see what was happening. There was a line of cars at the Shoreside fuel pumps, topping off their tanks. It wasn’t as long as the ones back in the days of fuel shortages in 1974, where you could only purchase limited amounts of gas at a time, and license plate odd or even last digits determined what days you could do so.

We were impressed by the array of Emergency Services fire trucks and ambulances lined up on Second Street, as well as the orderly manner of everyone. Later, I was to learn things weren’t quite so orderly on the road to the ski hill.

“It looked like a demolition derby out there,” Jerry Benzak said, who lives near the steepest stretch with his wife, Trudy. “Twice there were at least four cars in the ditch.”

Fortunately, no one was injured. And to the city’s credit, their sanding truck was quickly doing its thing on all the icy streets.

Meanwhile, out at Tom and Gretchen’s, like everywhere else in town, the search for news updates began on a variety of devices. The level of twitters, tweets, Facebook posts and website searches jumped much higher than the needles on the Richter Scale.

Tom, like half the other fishermen in Cordova, zoomed in on buoys scattered out in the Gulf of Alaska, and was startled to see that Buoy No. 46410, a little floater that will live in infamy, reported a displacement of 10 meters. Which led many of my former high school math students scrambling to recall metric conversion, which in this case meant 32.8 feet. I assume those that claimed anywhere from 35 to 39 feet were “rounding off.”

Alas, their math may have been right, but the buoy was wrong.

OMG. Fake news.

Geologists later explained the buoy read what are called Rayleigh waves, which evidently are undulating motions of the ground, not of water.

In the meantime, J.R. had initially reported citizens could evacuate to the civic center; that was later quashed. However, this led denizens to wonder if the Cordova Center was in the tsunami zone, which had the detractors of construction of what they call the “Taj” (Mahal) crying foul, since touting it as being out of the tsunami zone was one of its original selling points. A city official later pointed out that a 30-foot wave would have wiped out the old city hall (and present fire hall/police headquarters), but merely lapped at the base of the Cordova Center rockwork.

It makes one wonder why some evacuees were headed for the Ski Hill. I guess they were hedging their bets. Its base is at an elevation of 400 feet. I wonder if any of them called ski area manager Dave Branshaw to fire off the chair lift, so they could get to the top station, elevation 1,200 ft. After all, the biggest tsunami ever recorded was at Litya Bay, Alaska, which is south of Yakutat. It was caused by a massive rock slide following a 7.8 earthquake and reached 1,720 feet up a mountain on the other side of the bay.

This one was 7.9. So, head to the hills, right?

By the time the sun came up, the alert had ended, and everyone was back home.  Sleeping. School was postponed until 11 a.m. But half the students took a Tsunami Day off.

Back at our house, over much needed coffee, I glanced out at frozen Odiak Slough. The tide line mark in the snow and ice had not changed a bit.

Nor had this community’s calm response to a potential crisis.

As always, our emergency services performed superbly. All their planning paid off. Wow, are we lucky to have them. And they are following up their efforts with a candid critique of all that occurred, to seek improvement for future such events.

Included will be seeking state funding for more warning sirens, which cost between $30,000 and $40,000 apiece. Kodiak has 21, Valdez has nine, Seward has seven, and Homer has four. Why do we have only two?

Yet aren’t you glad you live in a place where that’s all it took?

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.