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Anchorage earthquake: The view from an Alaskan-in-exile
Rebecca Braun of Arlington, a YourArlington freelancer, wrote the following account about Alaska, where she used to live:
I was at a potluck at the YMCA on Friday, Nov. 30, when a woman who knows I’m from Alaska showed me something on her phone. “Magnitude 7.0 quake hits Anchorage,” it said. My stomach lurched. I excused myself and fumbled in my coat pocket for my phone. A text from a friend in Juneau, where I lived from 1994 to 2017, said, “Big earthquake in Anchorage.”
Anchorage is about 600 air miles from Juneau, and many of us go back and forth regularly. I texted my friend Cassie, whose family I stay with whenever I’m in Anchorage. “You OK?”
How friends fared
Mercifully, she responded quickly. They were out of town, and fine.
I texted other Anchorage friends, and received responses like this one: “Minimal damage in our house. Lots of stuff fell.”
Photos of cracked dishware and seemingly tornado-strewn living rooms flooded my social-media feeds. So did the stories. Gov. Bill Walker, on his last weekday in office, was in an elevator descending from his 17th-story office. "It turned out to be a bumpier ride than usual, but we made it down to the first floor, and walked outside to find Anchorage mostly intact," he wrote on his Facebook site.
My Juneau friend Jorden Nigro, who was in Anchorage for work, had just gotten out of the shower in her 15th-story hotel room when the room started shaking. It was just before 8:30 a.m. Jorden writes: “The shake quickly became a violent push and shove and I remember reaching for the wall to steady myself. Then the lights went out.”
She knew she needed to get out. “But the building felt like it was going to fall down; also, I did not have a shirt on. So I fumbled in the shaking dark for a sweater.”
Tales typical of Alaska
When the shaking stopped, the swaying started, and the emergency warning system announced – wrongly – a fire, and said to evacuate. Jorden found a stairwell and joined others on the long descent, helping an older man who had no phone light and who was worried about his wife elsewhere in the hotel. He remembered the 1964 earthquake, which devastated Anchorage and triggered a tsunami that wiped whole towns off the map. He said this one felt bigger. They did not know each other’s names when they reached the ground and got outside:
“I felt the cold and remembered my wet hair was in a towel. I introduced myself to him and he introduced himself to me. He told me he had been the mayor of his town for 21 years.”
This type of story is typical in Alaska, a vast expanse that would swallow up Texas twice, inhabited by fewer than 750,000 humans.
My cousin Alli Harvey was running on a barren road, thus escaping the terror of falling objects. She describes her confusion: "At about 8:20 a.m., halfway through the run, I felt the ground jerk beneath me. My first split second instinctive reaction was: what the hell, ground?! I felt anger and confusion, followed by awe (which is when I actually stopped running and took in what was going on). The ground continued lurching erratically beneath me, moving my body with it and swaying trees and power lines all around me.” She didn’t understand the magnitude of what happened until she got home.
Stories for Daily News
Other friends, such as Lindsay Hobson, who manages communications for Anchorage’s natural gas company, and reporter Julia O’Malley, found themselves working unexpectedly long days helping referee information. Julia spent 17 hours collecting and sharing stories for the Anchorage Daily News, while Lindsay worked 13 hours helping the gas company and customers address safety and a potential 700 gas leaks.
Many spoke of frayed nerves, which the seemingly endless aftershocks didn’t help. “Enough with the aftershocks, OK?” one friend posted. Days later, the Alaska Earthquake Center had recorded more than 3,000 aftershocks, five measuring greater than 5.0. A 4.8 quake hit Dec. 6.
For some, complicating the emotional picture was timing. The quake hit on the last work day before the inauguration of a new governor. Incoming Gov. Mike Dunleavy had broken with Alaska tradition and, some say, with Alaska law, by calling for the resignations of a large class of state employees, far beyond the scope of political appointees who routinely change with changes of administration.
The incoming chief of staff made clear the alternative was to be fired: “If you don’t want to express a positive desire, just don’t submit your letter of resignation. And then you’ve let us know you just wish to be terminated.”
Mirroring political upheaval
Thus for many, the earthquake was a physical manifestation of the upheaval. “This has been an emotional time, earthquake being part of the whole transition experience,” wrote one friend, a longtime state employee on what might be her last day of employment.
But adversity, particularly danger wrought by nature, brings out the best in people. A video going viral shows an Anchorage middle school teacher, who was recording a lesson when the earthquake hit, calmly and compassionately instructing his students – all of whom immediately got under their desks as they’d been trained in earthquake drills.
“Is everyone OK?” teacher Matthew Bennice asked from under a table as they remain under their desks awaiting instructions before filing out of the room, breathing into their shirts as the teacher says to avoid inhaling dust from falling debris.
And Anchorage Municipal Manager Bill Falsey has been plucked from bureaucratic obscurity to folk hero status for his informative, timely briefings and the city’s effective response. A typical comment: “I think the management of Anchorage Muni should replace the folks at the helm in DC for FEMA! THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT!!!”
While no fatalities were reported, damage to buildings and infrastructure is extensive in some areas, and at least two schools will not reopen this school year. The most dramatic photos capture a section of road crossing a swamp that partially liquefied. By Monday, it had been repaired and reopened, spawning memes like this one from Matt Schultz:
Matt writes: “What kind of Alaskan superheroes are you people? For real, they were working around the clock in hail and sleet and bitter cold. They deserve all the respect in the world.”
A magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti killed 230,000, while the same magnitude quake killed zero in Alaska. Soils and population density have something to do with it, but building codes and relative wealth are also part of Anchorage’s fortune. Whatever the reason for the lack of human harm, I am grateful. As my friend Jorden Nigro wrote following her hotel escape: “I am thankful to have a lot of love in my life and I’m very glad to get to keep on living and loving and working on being a better human. Life is short. Love your people.”
Poynter, Dec. 3, 2018: 1,400 aftershocks later, Anchorage newsrooms are shaken but reporting
This news account, which includes opinion, was published Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. 2018.
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