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Picking up the pieces…

Road destruction in Alaska's 2018 Cook Inlet Earthquake

There are a number of days in a person’s life that will be forever remembered exactly as they happened. Colors, smells, emotions. Everything. Big or small, good or bad. There are these days of significance that mark our lives. Sometimes we can’t exactly pinpoint why our brains memorialized these moments. Others have no explanation necessary. 

And yet, they say that it takes just three generations for those events to no longer hold their significance. We experience it, we tell our children first hand, their children learn through stories. After that, it’s just a dog eared page in an old book, maybe never really spoken about again. 

In 1964 Alaska experienced the largest earthquake in US History. A magnitude 9.2 shook our state for four solid minutes. Buildings crumbled. Houses collapsed. The roads opened and and the ground liquefied. People were without heat or water for weeks. More than 125 people died. 

My mom, just a small child, was at home with her brothers and sister. My entire life, I heard and reheard the stories of my oldest uncle having to sit on top of the others to keep them inside the house. Stories of my Uncle David, no more than 9 years old, running into the streets as they tore open. My aunt, traumatized, went on to became a living Richter scale. Guessing the magnitude and distance of earthquakes whenever they occurred. My mom, still too young to quantify the danger she had just been through, danced through the aftershocks.

Growing up, I not only heard stories first hand from my family. I felt how our buildings naturally sway as an engineering feat to move with the ground. Year after year we went through earthquake drills in school. Stop, drop, cover and hold on. These stories and precautions drilled into us as the second generation. Learning directly from those who experienced it. Those lessons becoming more than just second nature. And for good reason. Between 1995 and 2015, there were 877 earthquakes in the US with a 5.0 or greater magnitude. Of those 877, 85% were in Alaska.

Don’t get me wrong, I experienced plenty of actual earthquakes growing up in Alaska. It wasn’t all stories and drills. But none with so much destruction. None with near so much power. The difference isn’t just the magnitude, but also the distance from the epicenter and its depth. And for years, we’ve been saying we’re due for another big one. Because a big one isn’t just a 5.0.

On Friday, November 30th, by a stroke of luck, I was going to go into work later than usual. And, because of that stroke of luck, I was half asleep on my parents’ couch. Otherwise, at 8:29AM I should have been on the road driving. Instead, at 8:29 I was jolted awake. First into confusion, and then into action. 

The house shook violently, lights went out and all I could hear were continual crashes of stuff around the house. It took my brain 30 seconds to figure out how to yell out to my brother who was still downstairs. And then another minute to start dialing phone numbers. Of course, many calls couldn’t go through. But, the important ones went through, and as suddenly as we were brought into the day, the sense of calm fell over me. Following the first 7.0 quake, we went on to experience thousands of aftershocks. Yes, you read that right, thousands. But, even rolling through those, because I knew we were all safe, and I had plenty of cleaning up to do, my adrenaline quickly subsided. 

Those in the Greater Anchorage area all experienced this aftermath in much differing degrees. It took people driving north out of Anchorage (like my parents) over 5 hours to get home. A drive that on a normal day takes no more than 30 minutes. 21,000 of us were without power. Some house’s regained power almost immediately, while others were without into the next day. Some are still without water 4 days later. There are families who lost a picture or two, and others whose houses have sunk into the earth below them. 

At the end of the day, the true miracle is that there were no casualties. While we were coming upon that third generation since the 64′ quake, it hadn’t yet been forgotten. And for that, we should all be grateful. Our engineers have ensured that our building and construction codes are adhered to. And while we have a number of buildings and roads that sustained harsh damage, we have been able to come together to start putting the pieces back together. 

This earthquake wasn’t nearly as destructive as the one 54 years ago. But we come back to the first generation of understanding. And this is an event that will continue in all of our memories. No explanation needed.

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