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The Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami or 1964
Afognak Village History, Chapter 1

Compiled and Written by Dr. Gordon Pullar
Copyright © 2004 Native Village of Afognak

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“Made me understand the awesome power of our Creator seeing something like that happen.” – Ivan Lukin, Afognak resident

After many millennia of existence, change and development the village of Afognak suddenly and dramatically changed forever at 5:36p.m. on Good Friday, March 27, 1964. The Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami was a defining moment for many Alaskans but few more than the residents of Afognak village. The earthquake, with a magnitude of 9.2 on the Richter Scale and lasting four minutes, was the largest earthquake ever recorded in North America and the second largest recorded anywhere (the largest was in Chile in 1960).1 The earthquake’s epicenter was in Northern Prince William Sound, about 280 miles northeast of Afognak.

In the day following the earthquake there were 11 aftershocks measuring over 6.0 on the Richter Scale and nine more in the following three weeks.2 The earthquake and tidal wave caused many millions of dollars in damages in Alaska as well as in Canada, Oregon, California and Hawaii. In the Kodiak area alone the financial losses were estimated at over $45 million.3 The total death toll in Alaska was 107 with another 15 dying in Oregon and California. The people of Afognak not only mourned the death of two of its residents who were returning from Kodiak on their fishing boat but the loss of their village and life as they had known it.

Afognak store at sea

The Afognak store was swept out to sea

Afognak was hit with a wave having a maximum height of 10.8 feet.4 The loss of homes, vehicles, bridges, and personal possessions in Afognak was estimated at over $500,000 and the cost of reestablishing the village at $816,000.5 The population of Afognak at the time of the earthquake and tsunami was estimated at 190 by the U.S. Bureau of Census.6

Sawmill in disarray

The sawmill in disarray after the quake

In their report prepared in 1965 and published in 1967, Kachadoorian and Plafker said, “Of an estimated 38 structures in the village, 23 were either extensively damaged or destroyed. Many structures, including the grocery store and community hall, were floated from their foundations and washed as much as a half a mile inland…In addition, most of the estimated 26 automobiles in the village were either damaged by the water or destroyed by the waves; two bridges were washed out along the coastal road.”7 As a result of the tectonic subsidence at Afognak some of the wells used for water supply were contaminated by salt water.8

Kachadoorian and Plafker described the initial wave hitting Afognak as told to them by resident Willis Nelson shortly afterwards:

The initial wave at Afognak coincided approximately with low tide, but its exact arrival time is uncertain. Mr. Willis Nelson of Afognak described the waves as successive tides that were accompanied by a powerful current action and roaring sounds, especially at withdrawal. Mr. Nelson believes that the current velocity is indicated by a truck which was rolled into the trees by a wave and demolished – the speedometer had jammed at 22 mph. The initial wave was followed by progressively higher waves that came in on a flooding tide. The highest wave, which stopped a clock in one residence at 9:27 p.m., was either the third or fourth of the train. By this time the residents had evacuated their homes and fled to the hills behind the village; from there they saw by moonlight, most of the structures floating away on the highest wave…By far the largest area inundated was in the vicinity of the airstrip and the adjacent low area to the north that was formerly a swamp but is now a shallow lagoon.9

Afognak was fortunate not to have had any loss of life in the village from the earthquake or tidal wave.10 The Spruce Cape, a fishing boat from Afognak, was returning from Kodiak when the tidal wave hit. The skipper, John “Sut” Larsen, died, and ironically, his body was later found at Spruce Cape, the landmark after which his boat was named.11 Harry Nielson, another Afognak resident, also perished on the boat as did a Panamarioff of Ouzinkie.12

Yule Chaffin described the impact of the earthquake and tidal wave in her 1967 book, From Koniag to King Crab. She wrote:

To the north and east of Kodiak a few miles across Afognak Strait, lay the ancient native village of Afognak. Once it had been a large village of over a thousand inhabitants. In recent years the population had dwindled to 178 residents. These people made their living from the sea just as their ancestors had done for hundreds of years before them. They lived in small cabins and frame houses stretched along the lowlands facing the sea.

Shortly after the earth heaved and convulsed on that fateful day in March, the sea drew away from the land leaving the reefs and ocean floor bare. The oldtimers among them knew these ominous signs of a tidal wave. Hurriedly, they grabbed blankets, provisions and warm clothes, and tossing them into cars and trucks, they piled in and raced for the mountains behind the village. Monstrous rollers surged over their homes smashing them like kindling wood, then the mad whirlpool of debris was sucked back into the bowels of the ocean. All night long the ocean surged forward and receded. For three days the villagers huddled in the snow and cold while smaller tremors still spasmodically shook the earth beneath them. When they finally returned to their village, they found that 23 of their 38 homes were totally destroyed. Although they didn’t know it at the time, the ancient village of Afognak would be no more.13

The Aftermath

Victoria Nelson Woodward remembered the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. She said:

Then I remember too, when the island settled and the storms would come in, the Northeast storms. We couldn’t go to school if the tide was high so the men would have to take us through the back road to school. And then when the tide was out we could come back on the road, back to our houses. Well we’d be coming back and there would be a cow lying there that a bear had just killed, you know, and it was very unsafe. So they had to take us with a gun, you know, walking on the back trails because the bears were out roaming around hungry I guess.14

John Pestrikoff described the scene after the earthquake and tidal wave as he remembered it:

All the debris was floating, you should see that, oil drums and boats and skiffs. Stuff people had washed away from their yards, you know. Some houses…one house I saw come by the graveyard. I wonder whose house is that. You could see more like that what’s going on out there, you know, must have been Billy Anderson’s house, floated and drifted out. You know that stuff never come back to Afognak or anywhere here on these beaches. Where it ended up, you know where they ended? Barren Island. Barren Islands, that’s where they ended up. All of that junk there, yeah, that’s what Benny…that guy said. He took a picture of where they flew over it, all these stuff that washed away from Kodiak, Ouzinkie, Afognak, washed out there.15

…So we went down but…water didn’t reach our…there was a big log… right in front of the doorway there. …Tide brought it in. What shall we do? Wood for us, you know. Well, gonna saw it. Next time we went down there it was gone, it was way over the other place. Yeah, I should have tied it up there. God made me some wood and I didn’t accept it. …Our freezer was under water, course we dried it up and made it work again, you know. Freddie and I, my boy, he went to school engineering and we also dried up the generator. We dried that out and made use of, start all over again, so we were lucky we didn’t lose much. We didn’t lose our boat and we didn’t lose much groceries, not even flour. Flour escaped, the boys storing them, put it up in the attic, you know. Yeah, that’s how our flour got saved. And our home was nice and dry. That’s how lotta people come down and have something hot, you know, to…to survive on, you know. What we had, we didn’t have much and in the springtime, you know, we were kind of short of groceries and I go to grocery up Kadiak, Kadiak Fisheries at Port Bailey. I ran out of cash, you know, and my credit was good there all year around. Anytime I need groceries they told me to come up here, grocery up, that was pretty handy for me, you know. And therefore made a trip there and bought some groceries then we shared a hot water or whatever we had was there for families. They needed dry up. Well, some of them lost everything, clothes, food, no house… 16

Some Afognak people were not in the village at the time of the disaster and had a tense period of waiting to get word on the safety of their families and homes. Some young people were away at boarding schools such at Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka or Chemawa in Salem, Oregon. Others had moved from the village to Kodiak, Washington State, or other places but still considered Afognak their home and kept close contact with family members there.

Arlene (Garner) Nelson (born 1947) was away attending Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon when she received word that the earthquake and tidal wave had hit Alaska. There were rumors that Kodiak Island had sunk and didn’t exist anymore. She had to endure three days of waiting before she got word that her family in Afognak was safe. She described her traumatic ordeal:

I was going to school in Chemawa, Oregon then. I went to school that year so I wasn’t there for the earthquake. That’s a big part of my life I remember. …Actually it was sort of a sad part of my life there for a few days that I’ll always remember because down in Oregon we (heard), Kodiak Island was sunk. So didn’t have no more families. I had a brother then who was going… he was in Fort Gordon, Georgia. He was in the Army and for two days him and I were phoning each other. People off of Kodiak Island here really couldn’t get out till it was through, otherwise through the Red Cross. My mom and them from Afognak were moved to Port Wakefield. So her, she and my uncle, Al Lukin, got a hold of us through the Red Cross and this was only three days after the earthquake. So during these other days we were let out of school and just sat in the living room by the TV and radio waiting for news from Alaska. And finally I was one of lucky students that got news from here through the Red Cross that my family was all okay. But for two days knowing that you had nobody was quite devastating.

Pat “Juney” Mullan (born November 28, 1946) was attending boarding school at Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka when the earthquake and tidal wave struck. He also went through the agonizing wait to hear about the safety of his family in Afognak.

Boy, that’s an emotional part of my life too. It was really scary, it was really scary ‘cause Linda, and I, and Helen, and Thelma Malutin, Helen Wise, Helen Noya were there and the first report we heard of Afognak was that it was forty feet under water. You know, and we thought we were the sole survivors. It was two or three days before we heard from our parents that everybody was okay. In fact, last time I was in Kodiak mom got, Linda gave, my sister, my younger sister, gave me a letter, the letter we got from mom, the first one after the tidal wave and she told us what houses got swept away and things like that. But it was very, very scary time for us and then also for the kids in Chenega. There was a good friend of mine from Tatitlek village that lost several family members. So for us up in the coastal area up here it was a very, very scary time. A lot of crying, a lot of just fear, you know, like I said I wasn’t the only one that thought I was the only one left. You know, it was real, it was sad… (then) Mom got a telegram down to us, I think like two or three days after the tidal wave.17

Barbara (Anderson) Willits (b. 1921) moved from her home in Afognak to Bellingham, Washington in 1949. She continued to think of Afognak as her home decades after leaving there as she had many friends and relatives still residing there.

Her brother Billy Anderson’s house was washed out to sea by the tsunami. It was the only house to go that direction as the others were washed inland. She described his ordeal as he had told her,

“…‘we were going up the mountain. So we all got whatever we could and we climbed the mountain and we waited for the tidal wave to come. It never did come but the earthquake did. It was a big one too. So we all went back home and then this last time it took my old house out all together.’ Billy didn’t have a thing to his name, my brother, after that. That’s why I like the Salvation Army because they helped him, they got him going again, clothes, house, and furniture and stuff while the Red Cross they charge. Yeah, that was really something.”18

Barbara Willits continued,

Well that’s when Billy’s house, my brother’s house, went out. They never found anything, they lost everything that time. But we were right on the, you know, water there, his house was… We wondered what happened to him. He happened to be on a boat and they rode it out and they went out in the boat with the, Dal Valley, he worked with him. They were okay I guess on the boat…It was hard, yeah, it took days to… I don’t know who got in touch with us (but) they told us my brother was okay, he just lost everything.”19

Lars Larsen (born March 23, 1923) left Afognak in 1937 to attend high school in Kodiak. He graduated in 1941 and planned to attend the University of Washington in Seattle but World War II changed his plans. On the advice of his brother he entered the Merchant Marine Academy and had a long and successful career in the shipping business. In 1964 when the Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami hit he was the marine superintendent of a large shipping company delivering ammonia by tanker throughout the world. Still feeling the connection to his home village he found the disaster news upsetting. “Well, it was hard for me to visualize the destruction till I saw the pictures of it. The newspapers covered it well. The radio and television were transmitted in the areas that I lived so it was quiet devastating to me to think that the village I was born and raised in was destroyed,” he said.

Marie (Lorenson) Painter (born August 6, 1918) moved to Seattle from Afognak in 1941 and felt the frustration of not knowing what had happened to Afognak during the 1964 disaster. She said:

…on the radio came this announcement that this earthquake in Anchorage and Kodiak and, and the tidal wave came and took the, took Afognak away and Kodiak was, a big tidal wave knocked out Kodiak. Took the boats out. You know, I almost went crazy. My mother and father and my brother and my sister were up there. And you couldn’t call, you couldn’t, finally Chuck Turner with Kadiak Fisheries called and then they made contact with Kodiak through radio phones. And they announced how many people were hurt and of course we were friends with Chuck Turner…He was superintendent for Kadiak Fisheries for years. He called us and told us that our folks were okay, that they had a hour’s notice so they went up to the mountain at Kodiak. But my father’s boat was gone. A boat Kadiak Fisheries had called Freda, that gone, they never saw it again. And, Larsen’s, that wasn’t Pinky Larsen but one of the Larsen boys, he had... his boat called, SOS, he was out in the water when he heard that the tidal wave was coming but that was the last that they heard of him, you know, the boat’s gone. And there weren’t, surprisingly, there weren’t many casualties. I don’t remember how many there were but not even twenty I don’t think that got caught in the wave. But my mother was… she wouldn’t go to bed without her hearing aids on because she wanted make sure to hear everything after.20

Letter sent from Afognak five days after the earthquake and tidal wave by Nadia (Sheratine) Mullan to her children Pat “Juney” and Linda Mullan who were attending boarding school at Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka.

Everyone at Afognak is okay. Paula is alright. Haven’t heard how Nick, Dora or Marie are.

April 1 – 1964

Dear Juney and Linda

Got your letter post marked the 25th today Juney. The one that was written on the 26th I received day before yesterday. I can’t quite understand how the last one got ahead of the first one.

As you probably know by now – we had a terrible earthquake 5 days ago. We were very fortunate that we weren’t hit up here. The tide did act unusual – go out, come in, go out again just like it couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to do. We were warned to go up the hill oh it wasn’t way up, just below the dams – one of the poorest places we realized after we got down. If there was another earth quake the dam could have broken & drowned the whole bunch of us. Then after spending about 4 or 5 hours up there we came down to the school & stayed there till about 4:15 in the morning. We then came home & put the lil’ ones to bed with their clothes on in case we had to go up again. Michael didn’t sleep & was very fussy so dad was really tired handling him. When we got down here we noticed that the water seeped in between the piling by Yoshi’s & was about 4 feet away from Annas house. At high tide the water washed up to the seaview where Olga live last summer.

Other than that & the earth quake nothing serious happened. The Lord was with us and how I prayed for you all that night. David and Paul were tied up behind the Kalgin Island in the middle of the straits. The next morning at 5:30 they went home with Oscar Peterson. Paul was very worried about his family & I sure didn’t blame him.

April 2nd

…Back to the tidal wave. I’m sorry to inform you but Afognak was hit very badly. Dad went down to check on Sunday – he said the water in our house was as deep as the dining room table. The wash stand was out in the kitchen. The base boards in our bed room were ripped off & stuck half ways to the ceiling. Our nushnik drifted away so did my smoke house. The banya was turned around and washed further back. Pan’s playhouse is smack in front of our kitchen windows. The porch veranda is just hanging down, everything up stairs is nice and dry. Water washed in our shed & made big dents in our freezer. The light plant was all covered with water & Billy’s big shed is half busted up. Billy’s house drifted away & was seen floating around in Letnik. Sounds like his home is the only one that drifted away…. The homes that were washed back according to what I hear were Willis’, uncle Ralphs, Harrys is listed, Johnies, Selmas, Mrs. Larsens, the store, Goldies, Margarets, Tatas, John Larsens, Shaws, Irishman, John Nelsons, and Pauls. The ones that weren’t moved & had water in them were the church, Gundersons’, Auntie Annies, Fred Lukin, Abners, Reggies, Ellisons, Noyas & Ours & Lawrences.

The ones that weren’t touched at all were Church hours, Grams, Afonies, Pestrikoffs, Greencus, the school, Annas, Peter Kewans & I think Zenida had a little water in hers. Oscar P’s & Georges were also unharmed as was Bergers. I don’t know about Enolas old house. The mill dock was washed away & so was the Lois V. I think some of the homes up the mill also had water in them. Sounds like Harry Knagin – Willis, Alfred – Johnie & Willis Nelson are going to live up at the mill for the time being. Del Valley was nice enough to open up his homes for them.

The Goldies – Tina & her mom were supposed to be taken in to town. Sonny came over & picked up his folks & took them to town. Paul & Charlene, Margaret & family & the Shaw family are up here till they can get some places cleaned out & made livable again. Shaw was lucky he was working up here when it happened – so now Vance is also working. The Shaw family is living in the old bunk house. They eat all their meals in the mess hall & Rena & Cookie & Mrs. Shaw of course help with dishes etc to sorta pay for their meals.

Margarets children like it up here so far but Margaret is pitiful she is so worried about Arlene, Arnold & Benny – they will be coming back soon & no home to go to. Yesterday we heard the navy took 2 tons of food & 180 blankets to Afognak. Dad went down yesterday to dis-mantle our light plant – he wants to ship it out for a general overhaul on the Kalgin Island – it is due to leave for Seattle soon – Minnie, Arne & Sandra are going out on it.

There was really a lot of damage done in Kodiak. Old Harbor & Shearwater were completely washed away. The people really went thru an awful experience. I was really happy that I wanted to come up here to live – but I feel bad about our home in Afognak. There is all kinds of rumors going around – but no doubt the government will have to furnish materials for homes wherever they want to settle.

Haven’t heard from you two but I sure hope that you are okay. When I sent the telegram I didn’t think about asking you to send us one too. Write & let me know what happened down there. Juney I’m sorry I couldn’t get the money to you in time for the doings you mentioned.

Everything is the same as ever up here. I’m going to make a trip home next time dad goes down & I’ll let you know some more. Theres a crevice about 18 or 19 ft. deep where Enolas store used to be. Awful, awful.

Bye & be good & remember more than ever to attend Church more often.

'Love you, Mom

A new life awaited the Afognak survivors of the Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami of 1964. It was determined that it would not be feasible to rebuild the village at the same location so a new site was needed. This new site chosen was on Kizhuyak Bay on Kodiak Island. It was not a popular choice for everyone. Researcher Nancy Yaw Davis said, “Afognak was relocated not at a place of the villagers’ choice. The people disliked the arrangement of the lots. They particularly complained about the lack of view of the water.”21 Despite there being some that didn’t like the new site, a new village was built and a new identity began to develop…that of the people of Port Lions.

Chapter 1 »   Chapter 2 »   Chapter 3 »

1. Sokolowski, Thomas J. “The Great Alaskan Earthquake & Tsunamis of 1964.” West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, Palmer, Alaska. http://www.tsunami.gov/64quake.htm (nd.)

2. Christensen, Doug. “The Great Prince William Sound Earthquake of March 28, 1964.” University of Alaska Fairbanks. http://www.aeic.alaska.edu/Seis/64quake/quake_description.html (nd.)

3. Freeman, Nancy (ed.). Kodiak, Island of Change. (p.32). Edmonds, Washington:Alaska Northwest Publishing Company. (1977).

4. Kachadoorian, Reuben and George Plafker. Effects of the Earthquake of March 27, 1964 on the Communities of Kodiak and Nearby Islands. Geological Survey Professional Paper 542-F. pp. F1-F2, Washington, D.C.:United States Printing Office. (1967).

5. Ibid. pp. F2-F3.

6. Ibid. p. F3

7. Ibid p. F31

8. Ibid. pp. F30-31

9. Ibid pp. F31-F32

10. Ibid p. F31

11. Chaffin, Yule. From Koniag to King Crab. p. 79, Kodiak: Chaffin Incorporated. (1967).

12. Ibid. p. 79.

13. Ibid. p. 80

14. Interview, September 19, 1998

15. Interview, October 11, 1999

16. Interview,

17. Interview, May 2, 1999

18. Interview, December 19, 1998

19. ibid

20. Interview, December 17, 1998

21. Davis, Nancy Yaw. The Effects of the 1964 Alaska Earthquake, Tsunami, and Resettlement on two Koniag Eskimo Villages. p. 408, Doctoral dissertation. Seattle:University of Washington. (1971)


Afognak History