I was twelve years old when I was in the Alaskan earthquake. I was with other Girl Scouts selling Girl Scout Cookies at a grocery store when the quake happened. I remembered the Easter Lilies on the top of the counters above us falling down on us, not a good sign. We clung to a floor to ceiling pole at the area we had been allocated to sell cookies. The sharp movement of the quake yanking us back and forth kept us from standing for very long.
I remember looking out into the parking lot of the store and seeing power poles swaying in the distance as I clung to that pole. The experience of the strong yanking is one that never leaves my memory after all these years. The smells of mustard and vinegar were pervasive throughout the store, and I will never forget that smell. All isles were too packed with goods to walk on. I remember people stumbling over the can goods frantic to get to the front of the store.
I was in the front of the store so I was able to get out easily with my friends. I remember my mother came for me. She was a nurse at the time and she knew she had to get back to work to help with the patients. My older brother was with his friends and we were to soon know the devastation he had witnessed. He had been jumping over crevasses as they opened and closed, turning the area he was visiting with his friends, into the worst damaged area of Turnigan. It felt like time had stopped, unable to process anything as my mind just could not take it all in.
My mother was able to get my brother and I home, we lived off a long road that ended on the Turnigan Arm, the side that was not near the water and thus not as damaged. Our home had not suffered any major damage, mostly food and the refrigerator contents on the floor, once again mustard smell, and a fine layer of toothpicks scattered all over the top of everything. My mother being a nurse and very organized got the place cleaned up, we checked the fireplace for damage and my bother built a fire. There were not lights or running water for the time being.
There was no shortage of aftershocks. As I was only twelve at the time and had not experience of earthquakes and the grownups around me were so preoccupied with basic survival they did not inform me that it was very common the experience aftershocks that would diminish over time. So as far as I could tell, I was sure the aftershock was going to last forever. I could also be that we were all in shock ourselves. My father was a radio and TV announcer at the time Nathan Brook, he worked at KENAI radio and TV. He worked in the downtown area of Anchorage, that area was quarantined due to so much damage.
He was stuck at work for a number of days but somehow he and my mother were able to communicate. He may have given her a message over the air as that was what the radio did at that time, was provide messaging and information to the area. My mother went into work that evening and my brother and I were left home alone in the dark. Sometime in the evening around nine o’clock there was a knock on outdoors telling us to evacuate as there was a Tsunami warning issued for our area and we were to head for high ground.
Our neighbors next to us had a large van and took my brother and me with them. Before we left we wrote a note for my parents telling where we had gone and that we had let our large Huskie off his lead as we could not take him with us. I was frightened again for my dog, and my whole family. I supposed I was in shock the whole day and months after before I felt that that experience diminished in my mind. The Tsunami did not hit Anchorage as it was predicted and we were allowed to go home. My mother was home when we came back and was glad that no further harm had come to anyone.
My dog had left and not come back, we found much later on that someone had taken him. He was a beautiful and friendly dog, he would howl at night like wolf longing for its pack mates as they were only a few blocks away. So my parents didn’t miss him as much as I did, and life moved on. I knew really horrible things had happened, I had school mates that had died when they fell in a cravas that opened up and then closed on them, I was unable to process everything, I wanted it all to go away and get back to my normal life.
I remember the weeks that followed, we used coffee cans for out toilet, my mother collected those cans and now we knew why. The National Guard was called in to protect property from looting and also had set up an over the ground water supply. The aluminum pipes would freeze, and then my father would put his coat over his bathrobe put his boots on to go and hack at the frozen water with an axe. He was not a frontier kind of guy. There were the honey bucket guys that came around to collect sewage.
We got our drinking water from a neighbors well, my brother and I would pull a snow sled to the well and fill up large Gerry cans and then take them home where mom would put Clorox in them. We were in the middle of spring break up before the water was turned back on and it made it harder to get the water with a sled. With no school for weeks my girlfriend and I would play endless games of cribbage. I remember those times fondly.
Finally school started, my school had some damage but was repaired in time. My brother went to West Anchorage High and they lost a whole top floor of their school so they went half days with East Anchorage High, their rival school for the rest of the year. My father came home after a few days, life eventually got back to normal. Later that summer we took a car trip “outside” traveling the yet unpaved Alkan Highway to Seattle for my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary.
The rest of the world thought we were all living it huts and scrounging for food and water, so my mom would take letters she had written to my grandparents and drag them through the mud, she had an occasional bout of whimsy in her otherwise business like demeanor. I remember that in some restaurant along the Alkan route that had a floor fan that was shaking the floor, we all got nervous, then looked at each other, and in that moment we knew that we were still in shock and would be for a very long time to come.
It would take years for me to stop reacting when someone would shake a chair I was sitting in or to not have flash backs of memory of the “big one” whenever there were any other earthquakes. I know live in Washington, in 2001 my mother passed away and brother was at my home north of Seattle, the area had an earthquake on the day he came in for the memorial service, we were north of the area and we still felt it, in that moment that we were feeling the waves of that earthquake we became those kids in Alaska on that Good Friday in 1964.
Merry-Rae (Brook) Dunn