(Note: Not a normal sort of Travel Journal entry, but then this was an unusual event and a lot of folks have been asking Julie and I about it so…here is a special earthquake edition of “Bob and Julie Head South”)
On Friday, November 30 at about 8:30AM AST, we experienced a magnitude 7.0 earthquake near Anchorage. It was our biggest earthquake since the big one in 1964. It has now been a week and about 3,000 aftershocks (not a typo), since the original event. We were very lucky that no one was injured and that the damage, at least so far, seems surprising light. There are lots of stories and pictures online about this quake if you’re interested. Here is our story:
At about 8:30AM, I, (Bob), was minding my own business, reading the paper in my easy chair, and having my morning coffee. I was in the upper level of our split level home. Julie was in the bathroom of the lower level when the quake hit.
At first I though to myself, “Hmmm, having an earthquake.” Then things really started to ramp up. The house started shaking really hard and after about 30 seconds of this (it seemed much longer), I started thinking, “Oh boy, this one is really close.” It felt like the epicenter was directly under the house. After about a minute, I was beginning to get concerned. The noise was very loud and the house felt like it was going to come apart. I could hear glass breaking and stuff falling. Then, things started to calm down a bit. I could hear Julie downstairs asking if I was okay and to be sure I had shoes on, that there was a lot of broken glass everywhere. Turns out Julie is cool in a crisis. While going down the stairs, there was another strong aftershock, but it was fairly brief. Then all the lights went out.
It is still dark outside at 8:30 AM this time of year in Anchorage. After assuring each other that we were okay, we made our way carefully through broken glass and who knows what else, looking for our emergency flashlights. Lights found, we inspected the inside of the house. The sheet rock was cracked in a few places, but otherwise the house seemed intact. I went outside the house to look around, fully expecting to see damage (downed utility poles, cracks in the road, damaged houses, who knows what), but all looked okay. I could not smell any gas leaks. I saw no fires. All seemed okay. It was quiet outside. Very eerie. No sounds at all. Not even sirens.
Communications were down. We did have intermittent cell signals, probably the system was overwhelmed. We found it was possible to sometimes get text messages. Surprisingly, social media was up and running (Facebook of all things). We could not receive local radio or tv stations, but we did have a battery powered handheld radio. The handheld was our only means of communication for the first few hours.
We decided to wait till daylight (about 10:00AM), to start figuring out what to do next. The house was beginning to get cooler because of the power outage. I figured we would need to get our Honda generator running to get some minimal emergency power established. We were getting advisories telling folks to “Shelter in Place” and to stay off the roads and yield to emergency responders. The full extent of the damage would not be obvious for awhile, but we were still getting strong aftershocks to remind us that Mother Nature was calling all the shots for now.
We decided we shouldn’t drive anywhere, but I wanted to take a look around. Our dog Sadie was terrified. We figured we could make things more normal by taking her usual morning walk. We got booted and cleated up (very icy out ), and took the handheld radio and Sadie for a walk. Just as we were leaving the house, the power came back on at 10:30AM. Hurrah!
We took our normal dog walk around the neighborhood and in the nearby park. All looked normal except for the quiet. It was real nice that people would drive-by, stop, and ask if we were okay. That’s the really cool thing about times like this, folks look out for one another.
During the walk, we began sending and receiving text messages making sure everyone was safe. Everyone was, so far. Son Mat was at work on the 13th floor of the state office building in downtown Anchorage and had an exciting ride up there but was no worse for wear. Everyone reported in and remained “sheltered in place.”
When we got back to the house, we made sure everything was working (furnace was on, water running, double check the gas, etc.), then began cleaning up the mess. I remember just sitting in the chair waiting for coffee to brew (what a luxury) and feeling tired already. Probably an adrenaline thing. Julie felt the same. We were starting to get reports from the outside world about some of the damage. There were Facebook posts showing some of the road failures. There were reports that both of the highways leaving Anchorage (north and south), were closed due to damage. We also discovered that we had made national news. There was more information available outside Alaska than in Anchorage.
As the first day wore on it appeared that injuries were few and minor, damage was mainly roads, and no reported fatalities. Remarkable.
As the week went on, it was apparent that most of the damage was in Eagle River and the Big Lake area of the Mat Su Valley. The epicenter of the largest quake was near Point McKenzie, just across the Knik Arm from Anchorage/ Eagle River. Roads, homes, and schools where damaged. Schools in Anchorage and the Valley were closed for the week. Some of the schools near Big Lake and Eagle River suffered structural damage that will keep them closed for the rest of the school year and maybe longer.
A Federal disaster was declared. The State Department of Transportation went right to work repairing the roads damaged in and around Anchorage. Because the weather has been so mild, most of the roads were repaired by the end of the week. Life around here is returning to normal rather quickly. Except for the aftershocks we are still experiencing, you would almost never know we had a major earthquake. The airports, hospitals, the port, and all other major infrastructures seems to have escaped major damage.
Because of the fact nobody was killed and damage was relatively light, Alaskans were nervously joking about surviving an earthquake of magnitude that, in other parts of the world in recent years, had killed hundreds and in some cases, thousands of people. In Alaska on November 30 2018, nobody died. It’s tempting to say Alaskans are tougher people, that we are zombies that cannot be killed by earthquakes or that God likes us more. Maybe so, but I think we were just very lucky. The low population density, rigid building codes (thanks to the 1964 earthquake), age of the infrastructure (nothing in Anchorage is over 100 years old), made a big difference. Most of the people who live here expect this kind of event to happen sooner or later. We have all felt earthquakes and we already know what to do in the event of a big one. There was no panic, no riots, no looting, people mostly behaved well and in an orderly fashion. Most of us were prepared.
Had this earthquake lasted much longer than a minute, I’m sure things would have gotten much uglier. The epicenter was only about 7 miles northeast of our house, but was 20 to 30 miles deep in the earth (it seemed to be right under the house because it very nearly was). Had this quake not been so deep, things would have been much worse.
We are feeling very thankful and lucky. There are still aftershocks even as I write this. We are getting used to them now. Julie and I have even made a game of guessing the strength of that last aftershock. It goes like this:
Bob: “That was a 3.5 ”
Julie: “No, feels more like a 4.2”, then Julie checks the Earthquake app on her iPhone…
Julie : “The strength reported was a 4.5, I win !” (she usually does)
The weeks and months ahead will certainly present new challenges. I will report any additional “earth shattering” news if it occurs…