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Post-earthquake survey of Alaskans reveals widespread anxiety, gaps in communication

An island in Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage is surrounded by cracked ice after n earthquake caused damage in the Anchorage area on November 30, 2018.(Marc Lester / ADN)

There was widespread psychological distress among adults and children in the days and weeks following the Nov. 30 earthquake, including sleep disturbances and panic attacks, according to survey data released last week by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

A survey launched online by the health department in December garnered more than 3,000 responses, mostly from people who were in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough when the magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck. Officials say it gives them useful information for improving emergency response.

Some respondents also said they couldn’t easily find all the information they were looking after the quake.

“We were looking for action-orienting information,” said Kim Porter, a state epidemiologist who worked on the study.

One of the most notable results the survey yielded, Porter said, was a sense of widely felt psychological stress after the earthquake. About 78 percent of respondents reported feelings of anxiety, distraction or worry, or other symptoms like trouble sleeping and panic attacks. Nearly 60 percent of those who said they had children reported that their children had felt anxiety or other distress.

Those results aren’t necessarily surprising, Porter said, but they do underscore the importance of behavioral health in a disaster response.

Sondra LeClair, the emergency preparedness and response manager within the Division of Public Health, said knowing this helps her office better ensure that as much mental health information as possible will be available during the next disaster.

“We know that this is an area that people want and will want in the future,” LeClair said.

The results also highlighted perceived gaps in information immediately after the earthquake. The two most commonly reported sources of earthquake information were Facebook and radio, though just under half of respondents said they preferred to receive information through text message from state or federal agencies.

“That’s a really interesting finding for us, because oftentimes what people need most following a disaster is information," LeClair said.

Respondents also noted that in the day following the earthquake, there was some information they wanted but didn’t receive, like instructions on how to make sure a home was safe, updates on road and building closures, and clarification about aftershocks and tsunami notifications.

Shannon McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said the survey responses provide useful feedback for her agency, though sometimes getting information out as quickly as people would like simply isn’t possible.

“We work to respond as quickly as possible, including bringing in additional inspectors immediately after an incident, but inspections and assessments take time,” McCarthy said in an email.

The DOT sent out 305 updates, clarifications and answers to questions on its social media accounts in the 12 days after the earthquake, as well as 148 email updates and 25 situation reports, McCarthy said. The challenge, she said, is being able to quickly reach a segmented population.

"We send messages out through email, social media, text and by working with traditional media, but we know there are people who do not engage on social media or consume traditional news sources such as print publications, television or radio,” she said.

Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which spearheaded much of the state’s disaster response effort, said his agency would be doing a “hotwash,” meaning a post-event discussion of what was done well and what could be improved.

Health officials said the survey results also give the public an opportunity to reflect on personal disaster preparedness.

“The farther away we get from the earthquake, the more people stop focusing on preparedness and start focusing on daily life,” LeClair said.

Fewer than half of respondents said they had an emergency kit ready before the earthquake. Of those who didn’t, some said they didn’t think it was necessary while others said they had the components, just not in one place, Porter said.

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