Friday’s massive earthquake was a potent reminder of Alaska’s risks

OPINION: Alaskans are resilient, but Friday's quake will stay with residents for a long time to come.

By Dermot Cole - December 2, 2018
A damaged road is seen during a survey by the Alaska National Guard 176th Wing after an earthquake near Anchorage, Alaska, U.S. November 30, 2018. (U.S. Air National Guard / Handout via Reuters)

For Alaskans, the most important thing about the powerful earthquake that rattled nerves and damaged roads, businesses and homes Friday was that no one was killed and there were few serious injuries.

Credit that to several factors, the main ones being the relatively small size of Anchorage, the lack of a tsunami, the types of construction and the design standards for infrastructure that recognize — to some degree — the potential for earthquakes in one of the world’s most seismically active places.

Yes, the damages will add up to many millions.

Eight major sections of roads cracked or crumbled, while the shifting earth shattered windows and cleared supermarket shelves. There were some fires and some small buildings collapsed.

Ceiling tiles fell, gas lines leaked and electric power failed. Malfunctioning sprinklers sprayed school hallways and every tidy office turned into a mess.

In thousands of homes, the violent shaking emptied cabinets, knocked photos off walls and toppled TV sets.

But the region did not suffer catastrophic damage.

Hours after the 7.0 quake that registered on seismic instruments around the world, President Trump offered his condolences with a tweet from Argentina.

“To the Great people of Alaska. You have been hit hard by a ‘big one.’ Please follow the directions of the highly trained professionals who are there to help you. Your Federal Government will spare no expense. God Bless you ALL!” he said.

At least he didn’t say it was “the big one.”

According to a “quake calculator” of the United States Geological Survey, the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake was about 160 times bigger than Friday’s wake-up call. The disaster 54 years ago released nearly 2,000 times as much energy and created a deadly tsunami. It was the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded.

But the magnitude of an earthquake is not a scorecard for human impact.

Friday’s quake struck just seven miles from the state’s largest city and it had a bigger impact on more Alaskans than any quake since the devastation of 1964.

Earthquakes of this magnitude are not unusual in Alaska, but most often they take place in remote areas where humans are few and far between.

I live in Fairbanks, where many people felt the earth sway, about 230 miles from the epicenter. The news spread quickly through the major media outlets, as well as social media. It seemed everyone in Anchorage had a photo to share of kitchens covered in broken glass, spaghetti sauce and spilled milk.

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake at 8:29 a.m. and the hundreds of aftershocks that followed provided a fresh reminder to every Alaskan of the risks of living in earthquake country.

This message is constantly repeated, but we usually don’t pay enough attention to what might happen because big earthquakes are exceptional events.

Most Alaskans who have been here for more than a few years can tell you about earthquakes seared into their memories in which the land rippled like an ocean wave. This one was more powerful and scary than those, according to everyone I’ve spoken with.

A New York Times headline said “Quake Shreds Highways and Sows Panic in Southern Alaska.”

Don’t get the wrong idea from that. By all accounts, the sharp jarring movements that lasted for something less than a minute were terrifying. It was good that this happened in the early morning, during the twilight hours.

Once the shaking stopped, Alaskans calmed down and began picking up the pieces, fully aware once more that we only like to think we live on steady ground.

“We tend to lean on the image of the resilient Alaskan, but some will be dealing with fear and anxiety from this earthquake for a while,” the Alaska Earthquake Center said late Friday. “If this describes you, know that a lot of people are in the same boat. It’s a normal, common reaction to a very sudden, very frightening event.”

Dermot Cole lives in Fairbanks. He can be reached at [email protected].

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