1964 earthquake

Courtesy of the Kodiak Historical Society

People of Kaguyak wait to be evacuated following the 1964 earthquake and tidal wave, which wiped out the village. 

 “We’ll get through this together” is a motto that  reminds us that the fight against the devastating coronavirus is not a solitary battle. It takes a household, a neighborhood, a community, a country and the global community to work together to find treatments, vaccines and practices that can stop the spread of this invisible enemy and reclaim life as it was before the invasion of the virus. 

For many years, the people of Kodiak Island have understood the import of this motto. They have combined forces in combating catastrophes such as the 1912 Katmai eruption, the flu epidemic of 1918 and the 1964 Good Friday earthquake and tidal wave, which was commemorated last week. 

Accounts of the earthquake and tidal wave have many of the ingredients of a good story: riveting suspense, humor, tragedy. A common theme that runs through the tidal wave stories is selfless concern for neighbor and community, which, in some cases, resulted in loss of life.

The village of Kaguyak on the east side of Kodiak Island was wiped out by the tidal wave. Chief Simmy  Alexanderoff — who had evacuated a place of safety to help others — Nick Zeedar and Donald Wyatt, a visiting geologist, died in the catastrophe.

There were no casualties in the village of Afognak, but the tidal wave took a heavy toll, completely destroying some of the homes. 

The village of Old Harbor sustained a great deal of damage from the 1964 disaster. 

The late Bill Harvey, who operated Harvey Flying Services, knew that the villages were in trouble the moment he, his wife Lola, and their children — Steve, Jeannie and Louise — saw the cars bouncing around in the yard. The Harveys were getting ready to eat dinner, recalls Bill’s daughter, Louise Cobb.

The first thing on his mind was getting people out of the villages, said Louise. Bill drove to the hangar to get his plane. When Bill brought villagers to Kodiak, Lola served them turkey and hot coffee. She also gave mothers hot water for baby formula. Louise said she and her sister, Jeannie, were given the responsibility of heating snow on a stove, so that the hot water could be available (plumbing was damaged by the disaster.)

The villages of Kaguyak and Afognak were determined to be unlivable. On the other hand, there was a possibility of restoring Old Harbor. People worked together, with God on their side, to rebuild their community, said the Sven Haakanson, Sr., who was elected chief.

The city of Kodiak had its own chiefs and commanders who took it upon themselves to help their neighbors to higher ground — a sanctuary from the wall of water.

John Reft was on Main Street when the quake hit. “It got so bad that the ground was rolling, buildings and poles were swaying. It felt like the earth was going to open up and swallow you,” he recalled. 

John was in the National Guard at the time, and one of his first assignments was to escort a couple living on Tagura Road to higher ground. They resisted at first, but Reft finally convinced them to go with him.

John lost his father, Albert Reft, who was on the vessel, Spruce Cape, which capsized, ironically, at Spruce Cape while on its way to Ouzinkie to take a villager home.

In the days following the disaster, the Guardsmen patrolled the streets because of the possibility of looters.

“We had strict orders to shoot,” said Reft. “We were ready for anything. We were patrolling for three weeks. We were finally relieved by the Navy and Marines."

Once the earthquake and tidal wave expended their energy and destruction, the people of Kodiak reached out to each other to help rebuild their community and lives.

People, such as Smokey and Lois Stover, invited families to stay with them while they looked for a new place to live. Dr. Bob Johnson, who died this past year, checked on the elderly and young mothers to see how they were doing, said Lois.

Some of the much-needed help came from Outside. The Mennonite Church and the Lions Club helped Afognak residents get settled in their new location at Kizhuyak Bay. The new community — Port Lions — was named in honor of the Lions Club. 

Lumber companies in Oregon donated lumber and other building supplies to the many needy families in Kodiak, Ouzinkie and Port Lions.  

When three different ship-loads of the material arrived, DeWitt Fields — a rancher — and fellow rancher Tom Gallagher tried recruiting volunteer help to distribute it. Since most of the longshoremen were already volunteering their time, the men had to rely on others. Roy Madsen was the first to volunteer. Harry Felton, a forwarding agent, volunteered trucks and men.

A few days after the tidal wave, Sid Digree, publisher of the Kodiak Daily Mirror at the time, paid tribute to Kodiak’s response to the tidal wave and its aftermath. The spirit of the people was “evident throughout the catastrophe and the days that followed,” wrote Digree. “The cooperation of all — military and civilian — in meeting the emergencies points to a new and better Kodiak, a Kodiak that is blessed with sufficient beauty, charm and natural resources, to take its rightful place in this stern but beautiful state that is Alaska.”

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