Whittier quake kept her stateside

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 6, 2010

The recent earthquake in Chile led to some breakfast table talk that sent me to the Internet to look up Whittier, Alaska. As we discussed the strength of the Chilean quake (registered 8.8), my husband began reminiscing about an earthquake (registered 6) that occurred at the port of Whittier on Prince William Sound. He was an Army transportation supply specialist there in 1954-55. The facility closed in 1960.

We never knew how the 1964 Good Friday earthquake in Anchorage, some 60 miles away, had affected Whittier. Was it wiped out? No, but there was extensive damage from tsunamis that caused waves to reach 43 feet. Today Whittier has connections to Anchorage and the Alaskan interior by highway and rail. It is a port of call for cruise ships and a tourist attraction, offering fishing, hunting, and winter sports.

During my husband’s tour of duty, approximately 800-900 troops lived in a huge concrete structure. Besides the barracks, it housed a mess hall, theatre, rifle range, commissary, and post exchange with a cafe. He was asleep in the third floor barracks when a loud roaring that reached deep in the ground awoke him. Everything shook and trembled and the power, generated from the military electrical plant, failed. He realized what was happening and jumped up, asked the Lord to stop it, and rushed downstairs with others in the barracks. It was slowly subsiding by the time they reached the first floor. He remembers only one aftershock.

Over at Whittier Arms, the wooden two-story building where soldiers lived with dependents, people had dashed outside clad only in their night clothes. They stood shivering in the snow. They had heard the nails in the building pulled out and pushed back in by the terrifying earthquake force.

The day before the earthquake, my husband had received word that quarters would be available for our family at Whittier Arms. He had been there six months on a year’s unaccompanied tour; if we joined him, he would have to complete a two-year tour. He had planned to complete paperwork for me and our infant son to join him. On the day after the earthquake, he decided that it was best to leave his family in Alabama for six more months. He never filled out those papers. I never went to live in Alaska.

As I searched the Internet about Whittier, I noticed its rugged beauty and felt a little regret that I never saw it. Even so, it’s one of those places I might like to visit, but I’d never want to live there—especially when an earthquake occurs.