There were massive landslides and before it was over, the quake claimed 131 victims. The deaths and damage from the monster quake even extended to Hawaii and California, which were hit by massive tsunamis. ABC7 News takes a look back and ahead at our ability to deal with this kind of event.
As drills go, it ventured on the low-key side.
"This is a big deal. People don't really know what to do in the case of an alarm that goes out for an evacuation drill," said Muir Beach Volunteer Fire Chief Steve Wynn.
Which may explain the less-than-frenetic response in Muir Beach, Thursday morning, as the Red Cross, sheriffs and fire departments tested response times and readiness in case of an emergency like a tsunami. The choice to do it on this date is not an accident.
Does the name Crescent City come to mind? On March 27, 1964, a 9.2 Alaskan earthquake generated a tsunami that hit all along California's coast and Crescent City bore the worst of it. The 21-foot wave killed 11 people and destroyed half the waterfront business district. It's relatively ancient history that could easily repeat.
Just three years ago, a relatively small tsunami caused by a larger quake in Japan decimated Santa Cruz harbor, tossing boats around like match sticks.
Absolutely, tsunamis can strike at any time, which is all the more reason for a three-day drill in San Francisco. At the city's Emergency Operations Center experts warned us to not flock to the beach as San Franciscans did in 1964. They wanted to watch the wave close up. Not a good idea.
"I understand why people might want to do that, but we want them to do the opposite thing. We want them to go to high ground. We want them to tune into their radio, into the news for information about what they should do," said Bijan Kirima from the San Francisco Emergency Operations Center.
All of which might seem irrelevant on a picture perfect spring day, but it only takes one quake beneath the ocean and one big wave to ruin everything.