Sat, March 15, 2014

Personal Memories of a Statewide Disaster: Ouzinkie in 1964

by Anjuli Grantham
Earl and Merrle Carpenter lived in Ouzinkie
in 1963 and 1964. (Kodiak Museum/
Kodiak Historical Society, P-914-38)
After living through the undulations of March 27, 1964, Kodiak elder Iver Malutin measures earthquakes based on the amount of water that slops from a full glass. For years, a local basket weaver subconsciously made sure there was an escape route from beaches where her family played. Another elder recalls the infernal heat blaring on the inside of the Navy plane that evacuated her and her children to Seattle a few days after tsunamis washed boats through downtown Kodiak. The history of March 27, 1964, like so many disasters, is crafted from individual stories and anecdotes. Personal stories collected and spun together give a sense of the fear, camaraderie, loss, and even moments of humor that percolated through the traumatic days following the earthquake and tsunami.
The Kodiak Museum received a collection of images, ephemera, and objects that documented one couple’s Good Friday Earthquake experience. Merrle and Earl Carpenter were young Washingtonians, looking for adventure, when they responded to an ad in a 1963 Sunday newspaper, seeking a cannery storekeeper and postmaster in the village of Ouzinkie. Ouzinkie is an Alutiiq village on Spruce Island, within the Kodiak archipelago. The Carpenters sold their furniture and headed north, towards an adventure that they certainly weren’t counting on.
Last year, Merrle sat down with her granddaughter and recorded her memories of surviving the ‘64 quake and tsunami in Ouzinkie. The following includes excerpts from their conversation.
Ouzinkie villagers gathered on Mount Herman as
their village was inundated by a series of
tsunamis. (Kodiak Museum/
Kodiak Historical Society, P-914-8)

“’All of a sudden the stove started to move. At first I thought I was dizzy,” Merrle recalled. Yet, like the other villages around Kodiak, the shaking didn’t cause much structural damage to Ouzinkie. Regardless, “’I decided to take pictures because I didn’t think the boss would ever believe this. Well I started snapping pictures and unbeknownst to me I was taking pictures of the bay going dry. All the water was going out and the natives told me that I’d better get up on high ground because that water’s going to all come back, and it’s going to come back fast,” Merrle said.

Merrle and Earl headed up Mount Herman with the rest of the villagers. Once above the village, Merrle snapped a photo of some of those who had gathered. What appears to be a photo of a pleasurable picnic most certainly was not.
“We had some boats that were on their way back to Kodiak Island and we were concerned about them because we could hear them on the radio, calling for help and letting us know what was happening out there. Then the radio went out and the store was under water.”

The back end of the cannery store went out to sea with
the retreating tsunami waters. Canned food held
within the front of the store (pictured above) was
salvaged to feed the community. (Kodiak
Museum/ Kodiak Historical Society, P-914-9)
After a series of tsunamis had washed through the cannery, the couple ran down to the store to grab supplies and survey the damage to their workplace and home. “The back half of the store became detached from the rest of the building and was floating out in the bay.” In fact, the Ouzinkie Packing Company was nearly completely washed away and with it, the livelihood of most Ouzinkie villagers. It was never rebuilt. Merrle remembered, “The company had lost everything they had there, their whole investment. The cannery went out to sea.”
Merrle continued, “When we came down off the hill early in the morning we discovered that the store was inundated with water and practically everything in the store was wrecked… We had decided that we’d take turns watching the water because it was still high tide and if it was necessary we would get out of there.” Although aftershocks continued to rattle Ouzinkie for weeks, the seismic shaking did not spur any other tsunamis.
This $2 bill was rescued from the store’s safe and is still
covered in tsunami silt. (Kodiak Museum/ Kodiak
Historical Society, 2012-21-04)

Most of the store goods were destroyed, but the canned food was unaffected. “A lot of the labels had come off of the cans so we had to guess what was in them, but we didn’t care because it meant there was something to eat.” The Carpenters were also able to salvage the safe, and dry out $4000 worth of waterlogged bills on top of the stove. “So that took a little while to do and I can still feel the silt on my fingers today from that,” Merrle recalls.

Merrle and Earl stayed through the end of their contract and left Ouzinkie in May of 1964. In the months to come, Merrle received special commendations from the USPS for “the unselfish devotion to the public service that was so amply demonstrated by postal people during the disastrous earthquake” and a personal note of thanks from US Senator Bob Bartlett. These documents are now a part of the archive at the Kodiak Museum/ Kodiak Historical Society.
The Ouzinkie Packing Company was demolished
and never rebuilt. (Kodiak Museum / Kodiak
Historical Society, P-914-27)
The Carpenter Collection is among the collections of objects, photos, and oral histories held in trust by Alaska’s historical organizations that help to preserve the story of ordinary people who lived through the spring of 1964, an extraordinary time.