After Wael Hassan’s house shook violently on Nov. 30, 2018, he got the next big scare: the smartphone tsunami alert ordering him to evacuate.
The structural earthquake engineering professor, who was new to Anchorage, hustled his family into the car. They raced up Rabbit Creek Road to high ground and found several worried neighbors.
The tsunami never came.
Now, a year after the 7.1 Anchorage earthquake, Hassan and other experts are taking stock of all the lessons learned. They are weighing tsunami risk, building codes and other factors to help better prepare for the next big earthquake. And in Southcentral Alaska, sooner or later, there will be another big earthquake.
The quake, the most significant to hit Anchorage since the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, shredded roads, destroyed schools and knocked houses off foundations.
Few serious injuries occurred, but a year later Alaskans are still picking up the pieces. The damage could exceed $400 million.
Hassan, with the University of Alaska Anchorage, said the earthquake wasn’t a true test of the region’s infrastructure. And according to the U.S. Geological Survey, earthquakes with 7-plus magnitude occur in southern Alaska, from the panhandle to the Aleutian Islands, once every couple of years.
“The question is, ‘Are we more prepared for the big one?’ Because the 7.1 wasn’t the big one," said Hassan.
‘A big wake-up call’
Under Anchorage’s building code, structures are designed to handle much stronger shaking than last year’s earthquake dished out, officials said.
“It was kind of like God just gave us a big wake-up call," said Ross Noffsinger, Anchorage’s engineering services manager.
The quake was centered about 7 miles northwest of downtown Anchorage.
Its depth, about 30 miles below ground, allowed much of its energy to vanish before reaching populated areas, Hassan said.
A similar-magnitude and shallow quake, say 3 miles deep, would have caused “fatalities and many injuries and some buildings to collapse," he said.
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said that in many ways, Anchorage was “fortunate."
The earthquake struck at 8:29 a.m., with daylight on its way. It happened before many kids were at school. A shift change at the Anchorage Police Department boosted the number of available officers. Responders and volunteers reacted quickly.
“The strength of the community made a real difference,” he said.
Uneven damage across region
One of the biggest lessons learned is based on which earthquake-hit areas avoided the most severe damage — and which areas did not. Michael West, state seismologist with the Alaska Earthquake Center in Fairbanks, said the amount of ground shaking was roughly the same for the Anchorage Bowl, Eagle River and Chugiak, as far as scientists know.
But the damage to buildings was much greater in Chugiak-Eagle River.
“It was like your high school science fair project. You do something to one place, without doing it to the other place," West said.
Chugiak-Eagle River falls outside Anchorage’s building safety service area, and lacks the city’s building plan review and municipal inspection requirements.
“The biggest takeaway of the earthquake ... is that people should follow the Anchorage building codes,” Hassan said. “This should not be optional.”
The Alaska Seismic Hazards Safety Commission, a state-appointed panel of experts, made a similar recommendation in a recently released report.
Hassan is a former skyscraper designer who earned his doctoral degree at the University of California Berkeley studying earthquake impacts on buildings. He’s now working with colleagues to prepare a different report on last year’s earthquake for the California-based Earthquake Engineering Research Institute.
While collecting details for the report, Hassan visited hundreds of buildings and structures. Some buildings would have collapsed with a little more shaking, he said.
A wall in Gruening Middle School in Eagle River separated from the ceiling because its connecting steel bars weren’t properly installed, he said. The building could have caved if the separation continued.
“It was just the mercy of God that prevented it from collapsing,” Hassan said.
He saw the same problem at other buildings from Anchorage to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Hassan said he’ll recommend that the Alaska Legislature require seismic assessments for publicly accessible buildings that were not designed and built to municipal code. Owners that don’t make needed improvements should post signs saying their building is at increased risk of collapse in an earthquake, he said. He’ll also suggest the state or federal government provide subsidies to help.
“These are public buildings,” Hassan said. “People walk in there assuming they’re safe.”
Mat-Su grapples with lag in communication
The damage in Mat-Su was less considerable than in Anchorage, though the quake’s epicenter was within the borough at a sparsely developed area on Point MacKenzie across Knik Arm from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
In the borough, 50,000 people lost power, roads buckled and numerous schools closed for several weeks; Houston’s middle school has yet to reopen.
For Mat-Su, a key issue was the distribution of information to the public.
After the earthquake hit, it was more than 90 minutes before the borough posted any public information, and four days before Mat-Su officials held a press conference even as counterparts in Anchorage held numerous briefings. The borough mayor criticized the response within days, calling it a “total breakdown” in public relations and information sharing.
Right after the quake, Anchorage activated its emergency operations center — one place for all responding agencies to come together — and kept it open for three days.
Mat-Su didn’t have one place where emergency officials gathered. Instead, the borough established a “virtual” emergency operations center in which officials stayed where they were and pushed information to the borough public safety building just outside Wasilla, according to emergency manager Casey Cook.
An after-action report released by the borough’s emergency services department in January praised the work of dispatchers and emergency responders.
But the report identified 22 areas for improvement, almost half of them involving communications or public information.
One recommendation called for regular briefings of borough officials. Another urged the creation of a situation report, safety message and direction to the public within the first hour after a disaster “through public notification systems, media, social media and press conferences.”
Takeaways for the future
After the earthquake, one of the most costly problems that emerged was water damage. Among the factors: More than 200 sprinkler systems in buildings broke, causing flooding.
It took about two months for contractors to repair the sprinkler systems, said Bart Meinhardt, fire inspector with the Anchorage Fire Department. The quake caused a number of fires, but there were no major structural losses from fires.
The fire department will recommend builders use flexible water lines and additional bracing for sprinkler systems, he said.
Local experts say last year’s event helped Alaskans learn how to prepare for the next earthquake: They should strap water heaters to walls to prevent natural gas and water lines from breaking. They should keep a wrench near the gas meter outside the house, to quickly cut off a potential fire hazard. They should secure heavy furniture that could topple.
“This shook people out of complacency,” said Audrey Gray, an emergency programs manager with the city.
The city is applying for several federal disaster grants, she said. One would pay for automatic gas shut-off valves, triggered by shaking, at all city buildings. Another will help fix quake-fractured pilings at the Port of Alaska.
Alaskans are also more interested in learning how to respond immediately after the ground starts shaking.
Jeremy Zidek, with Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said 175,000 people participated in Great Alaska Shakeout earthquake drills in October, up from 140,000 last year.
Quake cost continues to climb
The federal and state government have paid $130 million in grants and loans for recovery, Zidek said.
Those costs could reach more than $400 million, he said. Large expenses, such as for schools or roads, aren’t finalized.
Limits on federal disaster grants and loans mean some Alaskans fell short of the money needed to repair homes, he said.
Alaskans should consider buying earthquake insurance, Zidek said, even though it’s expensive.
“People with insurance recover much faster from disasters,” he said.
As for Hassan’s uncertainty about the tsunami evacuation alert on his phone — he wasn’t alone.
West, the state seismologist, said one area for improvement involves understanding tsunami risks in upper Cook Inlet.
There’s little geological evidence of tsunamis in the area. But it’s never been studied.
It’s something the earthquake center will pursue, he said.
“It would be naive to say that there is no tsunami hazard in Anchorage,” he said. "It is long, long overdue for a proper scientific investigation.”