We’ve lived in Alaska for over 20 years, and only a few earthquakes have rattled us. Most are brief jolts that are finished before we even register what happened, but there have been two notable exceptions.
The first was in January 2016, when a 7.1 caused so much damage to my school library that we closed for weeks. It ultimately revealed structural damage that closed us for an entire year while the library wing of our school was demolished and rebuilt from the ground up.
That earthquake happened on a Sunday morning; Clark and I flew out of bed and ran to the kids’ rooms, but they both slept right through it!
The second was 10 days ago, when a 7.0 shaker roared through Anchorage at 8:29 a.m. The magnitude may have been lower, but it felt drastically stronger because the epicenter was closer and it was shallower. This was the first test for our seismically-safer library, and thankfully it passed because there were over 100 students in there when the earthquake struck. It terrifies me to think what could have happened if those repairs hadn’t been made. Engineers are my new heroes, and building codes clearly save lives. Thanks to both, there were no injuries or damage this time.
That’s not to say it wasn’t terrifying. The next few hours were chaotic, and we darted back under the tables multiple times due to the frequent aftershocks. Everyone was glued to their phones, texting their families and spreading photos of the damage around the city. One of the high schoolers showed me this picture of a collapsed onramp to Minnesota Drive (a road we drive daily). This was my first glimpse into the damage that was surrounding our school:
Our family checked in with each other right away, and it was a huge relief to know everyone was safe. Within 30 minutes the kids were both with me in the library, and within an hour they were both in Clark’s truck, headed home. His downtown office building was immediately evacuated, but I needed to stay at school because there were still many students on campus and in the library. Maggie captured this image on their drive home:
Things stayed chaotic for the next hour. Some students were on the edge of panic attacks, while others calmly chilled and waited for their parents to arrive. One girl had recently moved in with a new foster family, and she was terrified no one would pick her up (happy ending: they did). It took a lot of effort to check my own emotions and keep calm for the students, and I certainly wasn’t successful the entire time. Through it all the intercom kept blaring announcements from both schools, often simultaneously, summoning students as their parents arrived. It was so loud. The chatter on the school walkie talkies was constant, with administrators trying to stay one step ahead of everything from tsunami warnings to building damage.
Eventually we moved all the high school students to the gym, so I headed to the middle school to see how I could help. There were about 100 students left over there, now consolidated in few classrooms on the first floor.
That’s when I ran into Max, an 8th grade student and one of our library regulars. His dad was in the process of signing him out.
“Another big one is coming,” Max warned, with wide eyes. “At 10:30. It’s predicted. Even bigger than the last one!”
Usually I wouldn’t fret about apocalyptic claims from 13-year-olds, but considering the circumstances I filed this tidbit somewhere in my brain stem.
I’m fortunate that some of my best friends are also my colleagues. Nancy, Shelly, and I were helping reunite parents with their children near the front office when the world started shaking again. And wouldn’t you know… it was 10:26. Right on schedule. Everyone bolted into the multipurpose room, where cafeteria tables were our only option for duck and cover. The problem with cafeteria tables is that the bench seat is attached to the tabletop, with only a narrow opening for people’s legs. Shelly took one look and said, “I don’t know if I can squeeze under here!” It’s worth noting that Shelly is my uber-fit friend who gets up and works out at 4:30 every morning. All I could think is, “Well I am screwed!” but I remembered Max’s prediction and miraculously wedged myself under cover.
We were scrunched under three tables, talking to each other and texting with our families. I refused to move even after this round of aftershocks stopped (turns out they were magnitude 4.8, quickly followed by a 4.4 and 3.5) because I was still worried about that “big one” Max predicted. That, and I had to contemplate my contortionist exit strategy to extract myself!
Shelly, Nancy, and I have been friends for years, with decades of history together, but I predict those few minutes will remain some of my strongest memories of our friendship. I’ve been plenty tense in the days since the earthquake, but the image of us diving under those tables has been the catalyst for a few healing bouts of laughter.
Thankfully the prediction of another big one never transpired that day. By 11:00 our principal released all but a few teachers who volunteered to stay longer with the few remaining students. It was time to be with our families and check on our pets and homes.
The roads were surprisingly empty on my drive. I passed the ominous cracks on the onramp to Minnesota Drive, and held my breath on every bridge and overpass. At home Clark and the kids had already started the cleanup process. The power was out, but they were listening to news on the hand-crank radio, had set up a portable toilet, and the flashlights were ready to go.
I surveyed the damage and mess, which wasn’t as bad as I feared. Our pantry was shaken, some pictures fell from the wall and shattered, a toilet tank lost its lid, closets were all rattled, and our spice cabinet looked like it exploded. A bottle of vinegar broke, so the smell was pungent. The drywall cracks were the worst: over a dozen substantial ones, and I don’t even want to think about how long it will take to repaint the walls once the cracks are repaired. Overall we were very fortunate, because we know people who lost their entire homes.
The power came back within hours, but our well was clearly shaken and we couldn’t use our water. It came out brown and full of sediment, but thankfully cleared back to normal within a few days. Crazy.
Grocery stores and gas stations closed, yet there wasn’t a huge sense of panic in the community. For the most part everyone went home, tuned into the news, made emergency preparations, and checked on friends and neighbors. The aftershocks were so frequent I felt like I was in a perpetual state of motion, much like when you return to land after a day at sea.
This is my earthquake experience, but it’s only one of thousands. I’m encouraging the rest of my family to write about their own. Clark experienced the earthquake on a downtown sidewalk, where he heard it as much as felt it and had to take a knee so he wouldn’t fall down. Sam was in the hallway on his way to Spanish class, where he ran into the classroom and dove under a desk. Maggie was in applied technology with a substitute teacher, and her class evacuated the building after the first major aftershock. She was freezing by the time she found her way back inside to the library.
Schools ended up closing for an entire week, and a few buildings sustained so much damage that students and staff must be relocated to other buildings for the remainder of this school year. Clearly we are lucky that none of us had to duck and cover in a place that experienced catastrophic damage.
The aftershocks continue, including a 5.0 this morning, but I think we are ready to return to our routine. Clark and I went back to work last Wednesday, and the kids return to school tomorrow. I’m proud that leaders at both of my schools stressed the importance of giving students time to talk and process tomorrow, especially during the class period in which it the quake occurred.
This bulletin board awaits our students tomorrow. We are as ready as can be!