Earthquake and Aftershocks Damage Infrastructure Throughout Alaska

by | December 3, 2018

By Anchorage Daily News

A 7.0 earthquake rocked Anchorage and the rest of south-central Alaska Friday morning, cracking and collapsing roads and highways, damaging buildings, knocking out power and sending people scrambling outside and under furniture. It left many homes a mess.

A number of injuries, at least one serious, were reported in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. A homeowner fighting a fire caused by the earthquake at his home in Houston suffered serious airway burns, Houston fire officials said. Hospitals in Anchorage and Mat-Su reported injuries such as lacerations from broken glass. A patient came to Alaska Regional Hospital with a broken arm.

The earthquake's epicenter was in Mat-Su Borough, on Point MacKenzie to the north of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, according to the Alaska Earthquake Center. It violently shook the most populous region of the state at about 8:30 a.m. local time, just as people were settling in to work and school, but was felt as far as Tok and Valdez.

Seismologists called the quake the most significant in the state's largest city since 1964, in terms of how strong the ground itself shook.

"What happened in Anchorage was an emotionally disturbing event, a lot of people were very scared," state seismologist Michael West said.

The quake inflicted serious structural damage on roads and bridges throughout the region. Some roads, especially in the Mat-Su, remained impassable Friday afternoon. The Alaska Railroad shut down service until crews can inspect the tracks. Schools in Anchorage and Mat-Su were closed until Wednesday so officials can check for damage.

The city of Anchorage declared a civil disaster declaration to access state resources, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz told reporters Friday. He urged residents to remain calm in the aftermath of the quake.

There were several aftershocks, including a sharp jolt felt widely in Anchorage around 10:26 a.m. and another series of aftershocks just before 11 a.m. At least three of them were 5.0 and one measured 5.7. Lighter aftershocks continued to be felt through the afternoon.

The earthquake shook buildings violently, cracking walls, making some store floors a mess, and leaving office desks covered with dust from shaking ceiling tiles. Home chimneys crumbled, garages collapsed, and household items shattered on the floor.

A tsunami warning for south-central Alaska including Kenai, Kodiak and the shores of Cook Inlet was canceled around 10 a.m.

The Glenn and Seward highways in town reopened early Friday afternoon, according to an update from Anchorage police. But detours and delays continue.

There were several reports of serious damage. The Glenn Highway had closed north of Eagle River because of damage, and an onramp at the interchange of International Airport Road and Minnesota Boulevard collapsed.

State transportation officials were fielding reports of damage on all high-priority roads including three major locations on the Glenn Highway, spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said late Friday morning. The southbound Eagle River bridge was the area of most concern, McCarthy said.

A section of highway between Eklutna and Mirror Lake cracked and crumbled, closing southbound lanes for several days, according to state Department of Transportation project engineer Rod Cummings. Southbound traffic will be routed around the area until crews can repair the damage.

The Palmer exit off the highway was closed, she said, by a gap between the abutment and the bridge.

Vine Road near Wasilla also suffered major damage and a section is closed.

"This was a big one," McCarthy said.

The Seward Highway south of Anchorage was closed at Mile 112 _ McHugh Creek_in both directions because of a rockslide but reopened by Friday afternoon.

The Federal Aviation Administration control tower at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport was not allowing arrivals as of noon Friday, FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said in an email. By early afternoon, the stoppage was lifted and both arrivals and departures were allowed.

Anchorage fire chief Jodie Hettrick told reporters Friday morning that visitors to Anchorage should prepare to stay with family or friends Friday night, as well as residents without power. She said the city was working on a shelter plan for people without a place to stay.

Anyone who notices major structural cracks in their home should evacuate, Hettrick said.

Anchorage and Mat-Su fire crews responded to a number of fires and collapsed buildings after the shaking stopped. Exact numbers weren't immediately available.

Officials with the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility also reported numerous pipe breaks throughout the city.

Police Chief Justin Doll said police immediately started checking damage after the earthquake hit. He said Alaska State Troopers were beginning aerial damage surveys. Police were being stationed throughout the city to collect reports, Doll said.

The Alaska Railroad shut down all operations due to severe damage at the railroad's Anchorage Operations Center on Ship Creek, including the dispatch center, according to spokesman Tim Sullivan. The center is closed by flooding from burst pipes and the power is out.

No trains were running when the quake hit, but service can't resume until crews assess damage, Sullivan said. It will be a day or two before that happens.

The railroad cancelled a Friday night freight train to Fairbanks as well as weekend passenger and holiday trains, he said. Passengers will receive refunds.

There were reports of power and phone outages in the region. Traffic was backed up throughout Anchorage as people headed home to check on damage, and some traffic lights had gone dark.

The south-central Alaska gas utility, Enstar, has received "many reports of natural gas leaks and have over 200 pending leak orders, with more coming in," officials posted on Facebook.

Enstar asked people who smell gas or suspect a gas leak in their house to leave immediately and contact Enstar as soon as possible at 1-844-SMELL GAS (or 844-763-5542).

"If you smell gas AND know how to shut the gas off at your meter, please do so," the utility said in a Facebook post.

Port spokesman Jim Jager texted no obvious serious structural damage or tank/pipeline leaks. A tanker tied to the dock appears fine. Most of their power is back on.

The trans-Alaska pipeline was shut down as a precaution, according to Alaska Pipeline Services.

Chugach Electric Association, providing service in much of Anchorage, said on a Facebook post it has "power outages throughout" its system.

"Please do not approach any downed power lines or other equipment and facilities," the utility said.

"We are doing assessment and inspection right now. We need to inspect our equipment for damage before we can re-energize," it said. "The power outage map on our website is currently not accurate. We will continue to update throughout the day."

Anchorage Municipal Light and Power, providing service in Midtown and north Anchorage, said on Facebook it is "assessing any damages or power outages as a result of the earthquake."

Darcy Amelia, a dental assistant in Eagle River, said the two-story medical plaza where she was working was quickly shut down after pipes burst in the quake. Cabinets flew open and dental tools and other items crashed to the ground.

"There was like a roof leak, so there was no lights and power in the building," Amelia said.

Clients and workers fled toward door jambs, under tables and outside, she said.

"We had a waiting room full of patients but everyone moved swiftly" to safety, she said.

Pat Hansen, a statistician who works at the Department of Fish and Game on Raspberry Road, was sitting at her desk when the rattling started, she said.

"People went running out of the building, tons of computer monitors went down, bookshelves went down," she said. "I heard a part of the building sunk 10 inches."

As she drove home to check on her house, emergency vehicles kept passing, sirens wailing. A plume of smoke from a house fire rose up from a nearby neighborhood. Traffic on Minnesota Drive was at a standstill and there were a number of cars in the ditch.

"Every traffic light I passed was out," she said.

(Alex DeMarban, Devin Kelly, Zaz Hollander, Annie Zak, Marc Lester, Madeline McGee, Marc Lester, Loren Holmes and Julia O'Malley contributed to this report.)

(c)2018 Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska)