The Great Quake

The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North American Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain

I found this book about the Great Alaskan Quake of 1964 to be both informative and very readable, without being overly dramatic. Young teacher Kris Madsen was above her hilltop schoolhouse collecting water for an evening movie on Friday, March 27, when she felt the quake. From southern California, she wasn’t worried until the trees kept swaying and the water disappeared from the harbor of the tiny village of Chenega. Only the schoolhouse was unaffected by the tidal waves, and the surviving villagers climbed the hill and camped above the schoolhouse. The next day, three scientists including geologist George Plafker were already flying over Alaska to survey the damage. The only working seismograph in Alaska was overwhelmed by the quake and initial estimates were between 8.4 and 8.6 on the Richter scale. Later estimates put the quake at 9.2. You may not have heard much about the quake before, because the earthquake zone was sparsely populated. Most of the deaths were from tidal waves, now called tsunamis, which struck as far away as Oregon and California. The town of Valdez on Prince William Sound was also hit hard, along with parts of Anchorage. Working for the U.S. Geological Survey, Plafker and others studied the quake area, measuring the uplift and subsidence of land, surprised by the lack of a huge visible fault. The observations and analysis of geologists, especially George Pflafker, helped change scientific opinion to accept the theory of plate tectonics. I enjoyed reading about Plafker’s life, education, and career, and appreciated that the author, a writer and editor with the New York Times, only shared the backstories of Plafker and teacher Kris Madsen. I was also interested to learn  what happened to the villages of Valdez and Chenega after they were damaged so badly by the quake.



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