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With Alaska’s earthquake damage mounting, Gov. Dunleavy files request for additional federal disaster aid

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: January 3
  • Published January 3

In this Nov. 30, 2018 file photo, workers in Anchorage inspect an off-ramp at Minnesota Drive and International Airport Road that collapsed during the earthquake. (AP Photo/Mike Dinneen, File)

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy formally requested disaster aid from the federal government Thursday as damage from the Nov. 30 earthquake climbs toward $100 million, far outstripping state resources.

After an initial emergency declaration, Dunleavy’s 15-page letter to President Donald Trump requests a major disaster declaration, a more serious designation that could trigger tens of millions of dollars in additional relief. The request comes after inspections turned up major damage in hundreds of buildings, including the homes of elderly and vulnerable residents.

With other competing disasters in the queue, such aid is likely months away. It also wasn’t immediately clear whether the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government would hamper the process.

Speaking with reporters Thursday in Anchorage, Dunleavy said he was confident the state would get the help it needs.

“We’re going to bird-dog this to make sure any assistance that we can get from the federal government and the state is done in an expedited manner,” Dunleavy said. “We understand this is going to be a long-term event.”

Dunleavy’s letter to Trump reads as a narrative account of the earthquake that rocked Southcentral Alaska. Dozens of families were displaced from damaged homes, several schools closed for the remainder of the year and mental health clinics reported an influx of patients. The quake awakened deep-seated memories and anxiety about the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, which reshaped Anchorage and caused an estimated $2.8 billion in damage (in 2013 dollars).

The letter identifies $48 million in infrastructure damage that could be covered by a federal major disaster. Additional damage, estimated at $50 million, could be covered by federal highway funds, according to Dunleavy’s letter.

Mat-Su Borough land surveyor Dayna Rumfelt takes measurements amongst the rubble at the earthquake-damaged Vine Road on Dec. 3. (Bill Roth / ADN)
An earthquake-damaged classroom at Houston Middle School on Dec. 3. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Those estimates will almost certainly grow, state officials said Thursday. Damage assessments are slated to continue into the summer.

“We anticipate a lot of damage will be uncovered with the snow melts in the spring,” said Bryan Fisher, incident commander in the state’s emergency operations center.

As the wait for federal aid begins, a number of state assistance programs are well underway. Alaska has a disaster relief fund, Fisher said. He said he expected the money would last while the state waited for a decision from Trump.

Fisher also urged homeowners and businesses to start making repairs now.

In recent weeks, reports of earthquake damage have inundated the state’s Individual Assistance Program at ready.alaska.gov. More than 7,700 people had applied for help as of Thursday -- more than twice the total number of applications managed by the program in 2 1/2 decades, according to Dunleavy’s letter.

Fisher said the state eventually expects the number of aid applications to surpass 10,000.

The quake resulted in no reports of life-threatening injuries or deaths, though 361 visited emergency rooms for more minor injuries, including broken bones, chest pain and falls, Dunleavy’s letter said. Several thousand buildings in Anchorage and Mat-Su suffered damage from the 7.0 quake and its aftershocks, according to Dunleavy’s letter. At least 46 were destroyed.

On Christmas Eve, 110 people were still in shelters, Fisher said. Many of the most severely affected people are elderly or low-income, and unlikely to recover on their own, Dunleavy wrote in his letter. Homeowners have reported damaged mechanical systems, and trouble finding the money to make repairs and also pay for living expenses.

“While it may be possible for the State and other resources to meet the immediate life-safety needs during the response phase, the recovery costs will far exceed state resources,” Dunleavy wrote in the letter.

Only about 10 percent of affected homeowners had earthquake insurance, the letter said. The insurance costs about $1,000 a year. Deductibles, meanwhile, typically range from 10 to 20 percent of the home value, meaning that a $300,000 home could come with as much as a $60,000 deductible.

Those who are most financially fragile are least likely to have insurance coverage, Dunleavy wrote.

The state has contracted directly with hotels in the area to shelter people and families whose homes were damaged. Fisher said the state is now working to transition the displaced into longer-term housing. Those people will be in charge of finding housing similar to where they were before the earthquake, such as a house, condo or apartment, Fisher said. The state will sign contracts and pay landlords directly.

For homeowners, the aid extends up to 18 months; for renters, it’s three months.

The shelter situation was compounded by the fact that the city’s Brother Francis Shelter has been completely full, even before the quake, Dunleavy wrote in the letter.

This week, inspection teams were heading out to properties and verifying online damage reports, Fisher said. State grants will cover essential home items, like hot water heaters, stoves and refrigerators, Fisher said. Artwork and other valuables that aren’t essential to daily life aren’t covered.

At Thursday’s news conference, Col. Torrence Saxe, the new adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard and commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs, called the earthquake a “significant emotional event.” He said one of his own children was now attending a different school after Gruening Middle School suffered serious damage. He said officials were working to make sure there’s aid regardless of the federal timeline.

“It could have been a lot worse,” Saxe said. “But we have work to do.”

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