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Professional Paper 542–G

Effects of the Earthquake of March 27, 1964, on Various Communities

By George Plafker, Reuben Kachadoorian, Edwin B. Eckel, and Lawrence R. Mayo

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (20.8 MB)Abstract

The 1964 earthquake caused wide- spread damage to inhabited places throughout more than 60,000 square miles of south-central Alaska. This report describes damage to all communities in the area except Anchorage, Whittier, Homer, Valdez, Seward, the communities of the Kodiak group of islands, and communities in the Copper River Basin; these were discussed in previous chapters of the Geological Survey's series of reports on the earthquake. At the communities discussed herein, damage resulted primarily from sea waves of diverse origins, displacements of the land relative to sea level, and seismic shaking. Waves took all of the 31 lives lost at those communities; physical damage was primarily from the waves and vertical displacements of the land relative to sea level.

Destructive waves of local origin struck during or immediately after the earthquake throughout much of Prince William Sound, the southern Kenai Peninsula, and the shores of Kenai Lake. In Prince William Sound, waves demolished all but one home at the native village of Chenega, destroyed homesites at Point Nowell and Anderson Bay, and caused varying amounts of damage to waterfront facilities at Sawmill Bay, Latouche, Port Oceanic, Port Nellie Juan, Perry Island, and western Port Valdez. The local waves, which ran up as high as 70 feet above tide level at Chenega and more than 170 feet in several uninhabited parts of the Sound, took nearly all of the lives lost by drowning at these communities. Destructive local waves that devastated shores of Anderson Bay and adjacent parts of western Port Valdez probably were generated primarily by massive submarine slides of glacial and fluvioglacial deposits ; the origin of the waves that caused damage at most of the other communities and at extensive uninhabited segments of shoreline is not known. At these places the most probable generative mechanisms are: unidentified submarine slides of unconsolidated deposits, and (or) the horizontal tectonic displacements, of 20 to more than 60 feet, that occurred in the Prince William Sound region during the earthquake.

A train of long-period seismic sea waves that began about 20 minutes after the start of the earthquake inundated shores along the Gulf of Alaska coast to a maximum height of 35 feet above tide level. At the communities described, they virtually destroyed two logging camps at Whidbey Bay and Puget Bay on the south coast of the Kenai Peninsula, caused moderate damage to boat harbors and docks at Seldovia and Cordova, floated away some beach cabins in the Cordova area, and drowned two people, one at Point Whitshed near Cordora and one at the Cape Saint Elias Light Station. The seismic sea waves were generated by regional tectonic uplift of the sea floor on the Continental Shelf.

Vertical tectonic displacements of the land relative to sea level that accompanied the earthquake affected virtually all the coastal communities. Tectonic subsidence of 5 to 6 feet, augmented locally by surficial subsidence of unconsolidated deposits required either the relocation or raising of structures at Portage, Girdwood, and Hope on Turnagain Arm. Shoreline submergence resulting from about 3½ feet of tectonic subsidence at Seldovia necessitated raising all waterfront facilities and the airstrip above the level of high tides. On the other hand, tectonic uplift of the land in the Prince Williams Sound region required deepening of the small-boat harbors at Cordora and Tatitlek, dredging of the waterways in the Cordova area, and lengthening of some docks or piers at Cordova, the Cape Hinchinbrook Light Station, and in Sawmill Bay.

Significant structural damage from direct seismic shaking was largely confined to fluid containers and a pier facility near Kenai. Indirect damage from fissuring and differential settling of foundation mterials in the vicinity of the Cordova airfield mused damage to a building, underground utilities, an airfield fill, and the highway. Minor amounts of direct and indirect damage from seismic vibrations were sustained by most of the communities situated on unconsolidated deposits as far east as Yakutat, north to Fairbanks, and west to King Salmon. Except for a few cracked or toppled chimney, all the damage from shaking was confined to areas of thick, unconsolidated deposits. Foundation damage was almost entirely restricted to water-saturated unconsolidated deposits which, when liquefied by seismic shaking, could spread laterally toward free faces and (or) settle differentially through compaction.

First posted October 17, 2012
Revised August 20, 2013

For additional information:
Contact Information, Menlo Park, Calif.
   Office—Earthquake Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
345 Middlefield Road, MS 977
Menlo Park, CA 94025

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Suggested citation:

Plafker, G., Kachadoorian, R., Eckel, E.B., and Mayo, L.R., 1969, Effects of the earthquake of March 27, 1964, on various communities: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 542–G, 43 p., 2 sheets, scales 1:2,500,000 and 1:250,000,




Categories of Earthquake-Related Damage

Effects on Communities

Summary and Conclusions

References Cited

Two plates

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