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Remembering the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, the largest in U.S. history

A photo from March 27, 1964, shows the Seward Highway at the head of Turnagain Arm near Anchorage after the quake. (U.S. Geological Survey via AP)
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Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the largest earthquake in U.S. history: A monster in Alaska that caused a deadly tsunami, massive landslides, damage from Canada to Hawaii and ultimately killed 131 people.

Yes, the biggest earthquake in the nation’s history happened in Alaska, not California. While the 1906 San Francisco quake might be more famous — it was the deadliest in the country, killing more than 3,000 people — the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, as it’s known, was more powerful, registering a 9.2 magnitude on the Richter scale. (The San Francisco quake in 1906 had a 7.8 magnitude. And if you’re curious, the strongest quake on record was the 9.5 magnitude disaster in Chile that occurred in May 1960.)

The 1964 quake, coming just five years after Alaska became the country’s 49th state, struck at 5:36 p.m. on Good Friday. It rattled for about four minutes, destroying a major part of downtown Anchorage and leading to damaging landslides in Anchorage, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The quake was so powerful it caused the Space Needle to sway, so strong it caused rivers and lakes to slosh as far away as Louisiana and Texas. In addition, it caused a tsunami that ravaged towns on the Gulf of Alaska and caused damage in British Columbia, the West Coast of the U.S. and Hawaii.

There were 11 aftershocks that day alone with a magnitude of at least 6.0, with smaller aftershocks continuing for more than a year, the Alaska Earthquake Information Center says. The quake’s epicenter was about 75 miles east of Anchorage in the Prince William Sound area of Alaska. In total, 131 people were killed, a number that was remarkably low considering the quake’s magnitude; this is attributed in part to Alaska’s relatively small population. Most of the deaths were actually attributed to the tsunami rather than the quake.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Tay Thomas, now 86, told the Anchorage Daily News recently. “I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing.”

Interestingly, though California is most often associated with earthquakes, Alaska has the most quakes in any given year in this country. The U.S. Geological Survey says California ranks second on that list. But California has the most damaging quakes owing to its larger population and infrastructure, while most of the quakes in Alaska take place in remote locations.

The 1964 quake also played a big role in the way we watch for earthquakes and tsunamis. It resulted in the creation of the National Earthquake Information Center two years later, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and also spurred the establishment of the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center a year after that.