Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mountains May Quake

Lituya Bay is a T-shaped fjord on the west edge of Glacier Bay National Park, along the Gulf of Alaska coast. The head of the bay lies along a fault line; on a July night in 1958 a 7.9 earthquake along this fault loosened 40 million cubic yards of rock high above the NE shore of the bay. The mass of rock plunged from 3000 feet down into the waters of an inlet where the impact generated a local tsunami that crashed against the opposite shore. The wave hit with such power that it swept completely over the spur of land that separates the inlet from the main body of the bay, continued down the entire length of the bay, over a spit, and into the Gulf of Alaska. This tsunami, the tallest ever measured in the world, reached over 1700 feet high. It uprooted and swept away millions of trees and all vegetation from the hillsides, destroyed 3 fishing boats, and killed two people.

72 miles SE of there, in Haines, those of us on a youth mission trip were relaxing in our dorm on the 3rd floor of an old army building. We'd had a practice fire drill so it came as no surprise when the alarm went off and we quickly rushed out the door and down the outside fire escape. On the ground, I looked up to see the tall brick chimney of the old building whipping back and forth in slow motion reminiscent of a cobra doing its slow dance. Strangely, it did not fall. It slowly dawned on me that this was no fire drill.

That was before computers and cell phones, so it was the next day before our minister's wife called home to let everyone know we were all OK. As we worked, clearing the woods and building a root cellar, we felt the ground shake from time to time reminding us of this tremendous force of nature. It was not until long after we returned home that we learned of the terrible damage in Lituya Bay.

One year later, in August of 1959, I was returning home from a date around 11:30 PM. Walking up the sidewalk I was aware of the sound of wind through the trees - but there was no wind. My dad met us at the front door, something he had never done before, and told us there'd just been a large earthquake. Our plate-glass living room window creaked loudly, but did not break.

Glued to the radio the next day, we learned the quake occurred 290 miles away around Hebgen Lake in the Madison Canyon near Yellowstone National Park in Montana. At 7.5, the quake caused parts of the lake to rise eight feet and surrounding landscape to drop as much as 20 feet. Landslides carried 80 million tons of rock, mud and debris into the valley, creating hurricane force winds strong enough to toss cars. 28 people lost their lives when a campground was buried. We knew that my sister and her family, on their way for the summer's visit, were camping and might be in that area. The river was blocked, water rose and formed a new Quake Lake. In Yellowstone the quake created fault scarps nearly 20 feet high, causing extensive damage to roads and buildings. Telephone lines were knocked out; new geysers and cracks sprouted up all over the park. Old Faithful became erratic. Thankfully, our loved ones arrived safely the next day - they had been nowhere near the quake area.

I will always remember those teenage summers and how I gained new respect for the raw power of the earth. For me, it was only a tiny glimpse and my heart goes out to the people of Haiti and Chile. God bless them all.

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,

though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
Psalm 46:1-3

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