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Anchorage

The tally of Anchorage buildings significantly damaged by the quake surpasses 750 - and counting

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: December 31, 2018
  • Published December 30, 2018

A yellow tag, indicating restricted use, is affixed to the door of the Westmark Hotel in downtown Anchorage on Friday. The tag states that "second floor beams have cracking which have increased in size since the initial earthquake on 11/30." A statement from the hotel indicates that the hotel will remain closed until repairs can be made, which could take up to several months. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

A year ago, the Westmark hotel in downtown Anchorage completed a $1 million renovation. Now the hotel faces a long shutdown after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake on Nov. 30 caused structural damage.

The 14-story hotel at 720 W. Fifth Ave. is the tallest-known building in the city to suffer such severe problems, city officials said.

The quake’s widespread damage has created a busy workload for contractors, inspectors and engineers, said Sally Andrews, a spokeswoman with the hotel’s owner, Holland America Line. The backlog could delay “structural and safety” repairs, possibly for “several months," she said.

With reports of damage growing after the quake and aftershocks, inspectors with the city of Anchorage have identified more than 750 homes and buildings that suffered substantial damage, said Don Hickel, the city of Anchorage’s lead structural inspector, on Friday.

Another 900 buildings sustained minor damage.

And the list keeps growing. About 740 more homes and buildings await inspection from Chugiak to Girdwood, with new requests arriving each day, he said.

Don Hickel, the Municipality of Anchorage's lead structural inspector, pulls up a map showing some of the over 700 buildings that have yet to be inspected for earthquake damage, on Friday. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Thousands of homes across Southcentral Alaska were damaged by the quake. The state has received more than 6,000 requests for help under its Individual Assistance Program, primarily from people reporting damage to homes. The state’s application period for possible financial assistance is open another month, until Jan. 29.

State officials have encouraged residents who suffered even light damage, such as shattered heirlooms or small drywall cracks, to apply. Undiscovered but serious problems might show up later, during a visit from structural engineers or when thawing ground reveals damaged foundations, and the initial application can be amended after the deadline.

Otto Feather, with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s emergency services department, directed questions regarding current damage counts in that area to the state. Officials with the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management could not immediately be reached Saturday. A big-picture review by state and federal officials recently estimated statewide damage from the quake at $76 million, though that figure is expected to grow.

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In the Anchorage and Eagle River area, Hickel’s small crew of inspectors has visited some houses that are total losses, putting people at risk of going bankrupt, Hickel said. The emotional toll is devastating for families without earthquake insurance or cash to cover the high deductibles.

“For many, this is the biggest purchase of their entire life and now they have nothing,” he said. “We’ve seen some houses that looks like someone picked it up and shook it and dropped it."

Some of the problems are newly discovered following aftershocks.

“Houses are still settling,” Hickel said.

After the magnitude 4.9 aftershock on Thursday, the biggest in weeks, one man found sewage in his crawl space after a pipe broke. A woman reported that a bathroom door suddenly wouldn’t close.

Everything for her was fine until the aftershock (Thursday),” Hickel said.

A lightpole that shifted during the Nov. 30 earthquake leans into a street in Jewel Lake on Friday. Nearly a dozen homes in this cul-de-sac are yellow-tagged, indicating significant damage and in some cases advising the owners not to sleep in them. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

As of Friday, Anchorage structural inspectors had flagged 122 structures with red “UNSAFE" for occupation signs, mostly homes and a handful of buildings. Of those, 73 structures, or 60 percent, are in Eagle River and Chugiak north of the Anchorage Bowl — small communities where some of the biggest damage was documented.

Another 637 buildings are yellow-tagged with “restricted use” signs, where damage was significant but partial to full occupancy is allowed. Limits on occupancy may include closures of part of the structure, or no overnight stays. One-third of the yellow-tagged buildings are in Eagle River and Chugiak.

Another 910 buildings have been green-tagged, meaning they suffered minimal or superficial damage, such as wall cracks or a broken water pipe. One-fourth were north of the Anchorage Bowl.

People can sign up to request free structural inspections through the city’s website, muni.org, Hickel said. Houses with the most damage are bumped up the list. The lowest-priority inspections could take months to complete because the list is so long.

Problems that can warrant a city structural review include:

• Drywall cracks bigger than the width of a pencil. “If you can stick a pencil through it, call us,” Hickel said.

• Hairline drywall cracks that keep growing, possibly suggesting settling. Track them using a photograph or circle them with a pencil.

• Windows or doors not properly closing following the quake or aftershocks.

• Floors that have shifted.

In some cases, inspectors have found clusters of damage, with multiple homes in an area getting red- or yellow-tagged.

Matthew Robison stands in his earthquake-damaged Jewel Lake home on Friday. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

At least 11 homes were yellow-tagged on Ticia Circle, near Jewel Lake in South Anchorage, residents say. The condominiums, still occupied, sank several inches during the quake. Homes listed, beams cracked, decks buckled and crawl spaces filled with water after pipes burst.

“We just didn’t really have a Christmas this year,” said Matthew Robison, an Air Force F-22 mechanic with a small family and a condo that sank several inches.

Robison said he’s been hyper-focused shoring up the foundation so his condo doesn’t collapse, and working with neighbors and contractors to address possible repairs. Costs could easily exceed $40,000 for his unit alone.

He and other residents blame improper street drainage that saturated sand beneath foundations, plus shoddy construction during the early 1980s building boom. City records show the “Baker Subdivision” was owned by Lee Baker Jr., who became known as the Anchorage condo king.

Now 62, Baker in 2013 was sentenced by federal prosecutors to three years in prison for lying to a credit union multiple times, as he drew down more than $4 million tied to a loan for the Bryn Mawr apartment project on Northern Lights Boulevard.

Baker could not be reached Saturday.

The quake caused problems for some homes and buildings constructed during the 1980s boom, not long after Prudhoe Bay oil began flowing off the North Slope, Hickel said.

“We are finding that in the ‘80s a lot of construction was, well, let’s just say it was the boom times,” he said.

Matthew Robison walks through his neighbor's fence, which was level before the home sank about 15 inches during the Nov. 30 earthquake, on Friday. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

As for the Westmark Anchorage Hotel, built in 1970, Hickel said he wasn’t yet sure of the specific nature of the damage there. Private engineers working for the building owner have not yet provided a report to his group, Hickel said.

A yellow “restricted use” placard outside the hotel, posted by PDC Engineers and dated Dec. 5, says cracks in second-floor beams had grown since the original Nov. 30 quake. Only “essential” staff and contractors can enter.

“The hotel is closed,” other signs say.

Hickel said the Westmark is the tallest building he’s aware of that’s been yellow-tagged due to earthquake damage. Hickel said city inspectors will work quickly to review and permit the hotel as soon as the company submits paperwork.

“The city will do our best to expedite the repairs,” he said. “It’s in the city and the community’s best interest to get these buildings back up and running.”

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