The earthquake that rocked Anchorage Friday morning was felt by Mark Reed as it was felt by everyone else in the state’s largest city. A 7.0 centered almost beneath your neighborhood is hard to miss. But it didn’t change Reed’s day.
As the owner of a small, old-fashioned gas station and garage in South Anchorage, Reed had work to do, and since Reed’s Auto Service was still standing, he went to work.
It was a busy morning. A lot of Alaskans were getting extra fuel for generators or gassing up their cars and trucks as city officials warned them to prepare to “shelter in place.”
At one point, with other gas stations in the area shut down because of minor damage, Reed had customers lined up for more than a block. He himself was on the phone trying to figure out whether a scheduled delivery of fuel was going to make it.
By about 3 p.m., he was out of gas and turning away those in search of fuel. But he was still doing business; there were people needing summer tires changed to winter studs for the snow-slippery roads and a young woman who limped her Subaru into the parking lot with a wheel bearing that was failing.
Reed confessed he’d been so busy since just after the quake struck that he hadn’t had a chance to catch up on the quake news. When he finally opened his computer and checked his news browser, he noted that five of the top six stories were about the Alaska shake.
He laughed about a couple of them.
Bloomberg news was headlining that the Alaska oil pipeline was threatened. Reed worked on that pipeline and knew it was designed to withstand at least an 8.0 and had in 2002 withstood the Denali Fault earthquake.
A slip along fault lines more than 200 miles long, the Denali quake “was felt as far as Washington (state) and caused seiches in pools and lakes as far as Texas and Louisiana,” the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) later reported. “There were reports of triggered seismicity in volcanic and geothermal centers in Washington and California and regional seismicity in Utah.”
By way of comparison, the Anchorage quake was small and localized, and though after shocks rattled the state’s largest urban area through the day, Alaskans largely went about their business as if the day were like any other, only with a few extra chores to be done.
Costco seizes opportunity
With the Municipality of Anchorage warning it might be advisable to boil water because of possible breaks in city pipes that could contaminate drinking water with waste water, the south Anchorage Costco had cases upon cases of bottled water stacked up near the check out lines waiting for buyers.
Most shoppers appeared uninterested. There were more people trying out computers and cameras than loading cases of water. Christmas shopping seemed to be the main thing on the minds of the majority.
No one appeared to have read The New York Times which was reporting “Earthquake Shreds Highways and Sows Panic in South Central Alaska.” The panicked people must have been home hiding in their closets.
Surely there were some panicked people in the Anchorage metro area, but Alaska is a place where people quickly learn to roll with Mother Nature’s punches, or they leave.
The state might be going through a tough patch with its economy still in a slump. And Alaskans these days might spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about collecting their permanent fund dividends (PFDs), which almost everyone in the state now considers their “fair share” of the oil wealth produced almost entirely by others.
But when times get tough, Alaskans – Native, Caucasian, African-American, Asian, half breeds (the school in the remote village of Aniak proudly claims that nickname for its sports teams), and all sorts of mixed breeds – still know how to labor on.
Nature remains a regular, northern adversary despite these modern times. The days are short this time of year; the nights long. There are windstorms and rainstorms and snowstorms and avalanches and rockslides and, of course, the earthquakes.
Alaska is still home to those who remember the Good Friday earthquake of 1964, the largest earthquake in North American history. It killed 114 people, flattened several communities, and destroyed good parts of Anchorage.
“Strongest that I have felt since ’64,” lifelong Alaskan Eric Johnson said Friday, “but not even close in longevity. If I remember correctly we had multiple aftershocks that were as strong as this quake. It (the latest quake) did bust up the ice in the lakes pretty good.”
Johnson and his wife, Shan, run the Northwoods Lodge off the road system on the Yentna River north of Anchorage. Their world is all about self-sufficiency. They were picking up after the earthquake Friday.
“No structure damage,” Eric reported, “just lots of broken glass….The other observation about this one versus ’64 was the lack of the incredible roar that preceded the ’64 quake.”
His big hope was that Friday’s problematic shake wouldn’t trigger a deadly afterschock. Some geologists were worrying the collision of plates along a previously unknown fault line just north of Anchorage could alter the dynamics of the well-known Castle Mountain fault.
After the Denali Fault quake in 2002, USGS earthquake researcher Peter Haeussler observed that “it’s the only active fault that comes to the surface in Southcentral Alaska,” and told the Seattle Times newspaper that “I’d personally try to avoid living within six miles of this thing.”
Serious aftershock danger?
At a 1992 conference in Anchorage, Randall Updike from the USGS modeled the damage from a 7.1 quake along the Castle Mountain line, that “strike-slip fault, similar to California, similar to the San Andreas fault.”
If that happened, he theorized a major disaster would follow knocking out power and more: “Most of your bridges are out. The port has been devastated and is in flames. This sounds like some movie, doesn’t it? But I think these are realistic vulnerabilities that you can face.”
Geologists then warned that “a magnitude 7 or 8 earthquake could occur essentially at anytime” in Anchorage.
The average interval between quakes of at least magnitude 7 within 90 miles of Anchorage from 1912 to 1964 was 17.4 years, they noted.
The last quake of such a magnitude to rock the city was the Denali fault, but it was 176 miles north of Anchorage. The city was statistically due for a good shake up near by.
When it came, many Alaskans looked around, figured they got off easy, picked up the pieces after the shaking stopped and started moving on as they have always done. And it brought out the best in Alaskans.
There were Republicans helping their Democrat neighbors and vice versa in a state that has become as divisively partisan as the rest of the country in the last couple years.
Only three days before the ground shook, Anchorage Daily News columnist Michael Carey was writing about how Alaska doesn’t “have enough highly educated, highly innovative, highly secular, affluent professionals of the stripe who dominate Portland and Seattle elections to change the outcome in statewide tundra contests.”
“If you disagree with my pessimism, review the election returns for the Kenai Peninsula, the Matanuska Valley, Eagle River, North Pole and up and down Alaska’s highway system. Where Alaskans wear Carhartts, the Last Frontier is as red as fresh blood and reliably Republican as far as the eye can see.”
On Friday, the Carhartts gang was hard at work helping out the suits. The power was back on only hours after the shaking stopped. The highways were being cleared of rock falls and other debris. The sinkholes that opened under some roads were being filled.
Carey is right that Alaska is trailing Seattle, Portland, Taipei City, Chengdu, Shenzhen, Silicone Valley, Route 128, Dresden, Tel Aviv, Kyoto and whole lot of other places in the innovation department these days, but the once blue state turned red remains at the top of the list for resilience.
That offers hope that the “get ‘er done” innovation for which Alaskans were once famous will one day make a come back.