By Jenny Neyman
Moving to rural Alaska from the Lower 48 in the 1950s took tough stuff, which Mona Painter possessed. But there was one danger inherent in her new Cooper Landing home about which she couldn’t even fake nonchalance.
“Whenever there was an earthquake I just was really nervous about them. I’d just think, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen?’” Painter said.
They shake your home, your belongings, your neighbors and family. They shake you physically and mentally, rattling your sense of security, all with no warning and no way to tell how long they’ll last, how violent they’ll be or how much damage they’ll cause.
Friends thought her a little silly, trembling at every temblor, but she couldn’t control her fear any more than anyone could control a quake. At 5:36 p.m. Friday, March 27, 1964, her trepidation proved warranted as the second-largest earthquake ever recorded struck in Prince William Sound. The 9.2-magnitude quake shook Southcentral Alaska for nearly four minutes, is blamed for the deaths of 139 people and caused an estimated $311 million in damages ($2.28 billion today) from Alaska down the Pacific Northwest coast and even Hawaii.
As nice as it is to be proven right, Painter would rather have passed on this validation.
“When this one started I jumped up. ‘Oh, Mona! It’s just an earthquake,’ one of my friends said. Hah!” she said.
Painter was in her home on the Snug Harbor Road shore of Kenai Lake in Cooper Landing, having moved there in 1959 after initially spending a year in Seward when she moved up from Oregon in 1958. She and John and Dorthy Ingram had just returned from a trip to Kenai-Soldotna to purchase items for the annual Easter community potluck dinner and egg hunt. Painter’s son, Dan, 7, was home with the measles, along with her youngest two, Kathy, 3, and Peter, 2. Her then husband, Jake Mlynarik, was out of town working in Tok. Eileen Johnson (later Pruitt) was also at the house, having stayed with Painter’s kids, while Johnson’s sons were across the lake with friends.
“The cinder block chimney started falling apart. A prayer plant in a ceramic dish fell off a shelf and broke on Dan’s head. The deep fat fryer, recently filled with cooking oil, burst out of a cupboard and emptied itself on the kitchen floor tile,” Painter said.
Earthquakes weren’t very high on anybody’s radar at the time. There were no public safety messages reminding people what to do in the event of a shake. School kids didn’t practice emergency drills. Heck, there wasn’t even any official advice for how to stay safe during a quake, much less how to prepare for or respond to one. Susceptibility to seismic damages in buildings and infrastructure was, at best, an afterthought.
“Nobody around here adhered to a building code anyway,” Painter said.
They built what they wanted however they wanted. And when the Good Friday quake started rattling those structures, they reacted as seemed best at the time.
“We just wanted to get out, get out of this house! The house seemed to be breaking up all around us,” Painter said. “And now I’m thinking, gosh, nowadays they tell you to get under something and stay inside, but we didn’t know that then.”
Falling, crawling, staggering, reeling, they did manage to exit the house.
“The solid cement porch had split in half with each piece moving up and down. And, actually, the ground was doing weird things outside. Trees looked like they were touching the ground, springing up and going to ground again,” she said.
They got into cars and made it to the bridge over the Kenai River at the outlet of Kenai Lake, intending to cross it to get to Bean Creek Road, where Johnson’s kids were.
“The bridge was gone! It broke into pieces and fell into the river. The river looked black with large whirlpools and was running back into the lake. It was so awful! I thought it was the end of the world and I was NOT READY!” Painter recalled.
The shaking subsided and damage assessments began. No one in Cooper Landing was seriously injured. Compared to other communities — Anchorage, Seward, Seldovia, Valdez, Kodiak and even Crescent City, Calif., the central Kenai Peninsula was very lucky. The bridge collapse at Kenai Lake was the biggest damage sustained on the central peninsula.
It was staggering to see. A second before the quake the lake had sat calm, cool and collected under its winter lid of ice. With the shaking the lake came alive, shattering and bucking the ice into a ragged jumble that pushed up onshore, crunching outbuildings, damaging the railroad tracks along the eastern shore, mulching up ground cover and ripping spruce trees out of the ground.
In 1966 the U.S. Geological Survey published the results of its study on the effects of the quake on Kenai Lake. While damages to manmade structures in the sparsely populated area were nowhere near as dramatic as in larger communities, the impact of the quake on the lake was sizable.
The shaking triggered underwater slides from nine deltas feeding into the lake. The slides in turn generated two types of waves — backfill waves, where water rushes in toward the delta to fill the void left by the sinking slide, and far-shore waves hitting the opposite bank. Some of the backfill waves crested as high as 30 feet above the lake level and ran ashore up to 320 feet, the study notes. They uprooted and snapped off spruce trees, some as wide as 2 ½ feet at the base, and tossed huge chunks of frozen, sandy gravel up onshore.
At the Lakeview Delta, into which Victor Creek flows, a 3-by-15-by-20-foot block of frozen earth, weighing an estimated 50 tons, was found 40 feet from the slide area, carried there by a backfill wave. The backfill carried a log house at Lakeview more than 200 feet from its concrete foundation, depositing the roof and remains of the walls in a heap with uprooted brush and trees.
“Being ice-laden, the Kenai Lake waves probably caused more destruction than waves of similar heights in Prince William Sound. Between the time of the earthquake and the time that the wave heights were measured the lake rose 5 l/2 feet,” notes the author, David McCulloch.
At Lawing delta on the northeast end of the lake, into which Trail River and Ptarmigan Creek flow, the debris-laden backfill wave stopped just short of two occupied houses, though a shed and boathouse were destroyed.
The far-shore wave triggered by a slide at Ship Creek delta had an estimated run-up height of 72 feet — the highest along the entire lake.
The quake also caused seiching, standing waves in a partially or wholly enclosed body of water caused by seismic or atmospheric disturbances. These waves were mostly only about 5 to 6 feet high, the study notes, but in some areas where the lake narrows or shallows abruptly the waves got as big as 30 feet and ran inshore as much as 260 feet. Research indicated that the cause of seiching was a result of the entire lake basin tipping, sinking as much as 3 feet on its western end. The backfill and far-shore waves were more a problem on the eastern end of the lake, while people in Cooper Landing on the western end reported seeing the seiching.
“I.P. Cooke, chief engineer of the Alaska Railroad, was alongside the Kenai River near Cooper Landing at the time of the earthquake. He said that he saw the Kenai River reverse its direction and flow back toward Kenai Lake,” the report states.
Luckily, those living around the lake escaped what could easily have been much greater destruction.
“Fortunately, the lake was extremely low at the time of the earthquake. Had the lake level been 10 feet higher as it was six months later, the effects of seiches and slide-generated waves would have been greatly magnified. Instead of coming only 360 feet inshore at Lawing, the waves would have traveled at least 600 feet inland. Houses which this time were just at the inshore limit of the slide-generated waves would have been under 10 feet of water that was driving blocks of sediment and trunks of large trees inland. Undoubtedly such waves would have demolished the houses and would probably have taken the lives of several people,” the report states.
Painter’s could have been one of those houses. It was only about 200 feet from the water and suffered the most severe damage of any structure in Cooper Landing.
“Our house had the worst damage in the community since it was built on a substantial layer of glacier muck. Earlier, when we were digging out for the basement, you could stomp your feet and watch the ‘waves’ of muck roll across the ground under the house,” Painter said. “It was interesting to me that the houses that were on a real solid foundation had the least damage. There were some places that you knew that were on bedrock, and except for things being shook off the shelf or something like that they just had little damage. And ours was like sitting on a bowl of Jell-O.”
The entire house was knocked off its concrete block foundation and the cement porch was cracked in two. Items on shelves and in cupboards were strewn about the house. The oil from the deep fat fryer caused the tile adhesive to dissolve. Outside, the previously smooth lakeshore right in front of the house was packed with jumbled ice and ripped-out foliage debris.
“We did find a number of trees that were fractured. Some that were just split in two, only they were still standing. It was weird,” Painter said.
A dam formed at the outlet of the lake when ice chunks jammed against the remains of the collapsed bridge. Highway crews used explosives to blast away the dam to prevent flooding, Painter remembers. The concussion busted one of Painter’s 4-by-7 windows — yet another thing to fix, though this one was paid for by the state.
“The neighbors, our friends got together and really helped us a lot with putting the foundation back together and getting the house on the foundation. That was really important,” Painter said.
They stayed at Jack and Jo Randall’s “little house,” now part of Alaska River Adventures, while repairs were made. It took a couple weeks to get the house patched up and back in livable order.
Jack Coppock’s boat was rigged as a ferry soon after the quake. Much to their indignity, kids didn’t even miss a day of school, as the schoolhouse didn’t sustain any serious damage. It did liven up a writing assignment, however, as students in the first, second and third grades were asked to write about their Easter weekend when school resumed. The quake figured prominently, as seen in their assignments, which were given to the museum in Cooper Landing for display.
“A earthquake cane (came). It was bad. I was cold. I had the measles. I was in my pajamas. We had to move out of our house,” wrote Painter’s son, Dan Mlynarik.
“I got a rabbit for Easter. Tim got a little toy chick. My brother saw the bridge fall down. We were at the sawmill. Sue Ann’s horse just about stepped on me,” wrote Pixie Smith.
“We got chocolate egg. Our kinnet (kitten) is sick. Daddy’s boats gone. A tidal wave washed it out. He will have to cancel a boat hunt. I saw the bridge go,” wrote Shari Randall.
Within a week the Army flew a temporary Bailey Bridge to Soldotna and DOT had it installed over the river. The highways to Anchorage and Seward were temporarily blocked by other bridge and road collapses, but Painter doesn’t remember that being a huge hardship for Cooper Landing.
“Hamilton’s Place was there, they had a pretty good grocery store then. I don’t remember having any problem,” Painter said. “Being out of town like we were anyway, we used to stock up on stuff.”
The Red Cross came through to distribute supplies, but they didn’t have much of a supply left at that point.
“A case of canned baby formula, which I learned to cook with, and a case of sanitary napkins, which I also offered to friends,” she said. “Maybe we didn’t have fresh lettuce, but we certainly had sanitary napkins and baby formula.”
The road to Kenai-Soldotna was also damaged, including the Kenai River bridge at Schooner’s Bend, near the Resurrection Pass trailhead, but not to the point where it stopped traffic for long, as Painter knew firsthand.
“Because in all the times in all my life the IRS decided to audit us, and I had to go to Anchorage to an audit session so I had to drive to Soldotna and take a plane.
And we were driving to Soldotna over the Schooner Bend bridge. It was damaged and was considered that it had to be replaced and people were driving over it at their own risk.”
Better to risk the drive than the wrath of the IRS, apparently. And though the experience was rattling, to say the least, for Painter, she didn’t question whether to give up her Alaska home, come hell, high water or an earthquake that could cause them.
“A week after the quake, I was cleaning in the house with Peter and Kathy when the 7-point aftershock happened. The house was still on jacks for the foundation repair. That about did me in! I started getting hives often. That affliction stayed with me until the kids and I made a trip to Oregon in August to see my folks and get my nerves under control,” she said.
She now lives farther inland and upland of the lake, and construction methods have come a long way toward providing better safety and stability in a quake. While Cooper Landing, nor the world, has experienced a quake as strong as that of Good Friday 1964, each subsequent shake still is a reminder of the one she will never forget.
“It was something,” she said.