A year after the big quake, many Alaska lives remain shaken

Last in a series

Schools need fixing, homes are still splintered and families endure discomfort despite hundreds of millions of federal, state and private dollars spent over the past year for rebuilding Southcentral Alaska after the magnitude 7.1 earthquake.

In the days after the Nov. 30, 2018, quake, many residents marveled at the apparent speedy recovery — crumbled roads were repaired within days, most schools were reopened within a week, and life returned pretty much to normal for most. But while many scars from the quake have been grown over by new grass or covered in fresh paint, a closer look shows the rebuilding efforts have been uneven and fraught with disappointment and compromise.

Officials with the Municipality of Anchorage say determining how many homes and businesses are still unrepaired is a moving target. Since the quake, municipal inspectors have visited 3,838 properties, of which 72 were issued red tags, meaning they were unfit for occupancy. A total of 13 permits were issued for the red-tagged properties, including two homes that were demolished in hard-hit Eagle River. Another 792 “yellow tags” — meaning restricted use — were issued, of which 286 have since been issued permits.

In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, where there is no municipal inspection office, quake damage to homes and businesses is also tough to quantify. About 2,900 people in the borough applied for state disaster assistance, borough emergency managers say. Thirty-four applicants put themselves in the “destroyed” category. More than 380 reported major damage.

State officials said it’s difficult to put a price tag on damages, but Jeremy Zidek with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management estimates the total state and federal assistance related to the quake will top $275 million. As of the end of November, Zidek said $130 million in state and federal assistance had already been spent.

Some needed infrastructure work has been completed — such as a $1.8 million fix for a Glenn Highway bridge — while other projects remain in the planning stages.

Vine Road, the two-laner outside Wasilla that became the symbol of the quake’s destruction, got a temporary fix soon after the shaking tore pavement into a jumble of upheaved asphalt. A viral aerial photo showed an Alaska road that looked like a bomb hit it.

But a permanent repair by the state and Mat-Su Borough isn’t scheduled to start until next summer and won’t be finished until 2021. As the photo shows, Vine Road was built over a swamp. That complicates the fix, because the road runs through water-saturated soils.

The Anchorage School District spent $22 million in the immediate aftermath of the quake getting schools up and running, and larger fixes loom. Among the largest challenges is a pair of still-shuttered schools in Eagle River, including Gruening Middle School, whose estimated $39 million repair bill is part of an $82.8 million bond proposal that includes $70 million for earthquake repairs at 14 ASD schools.

In Mat-Su, Houston Middle School remains closed as well. Plans call for the building to be repurposed as a high school for a cost of about $29 million, with insurance potentially covering up to $15 million. But that proposal still needs local approval and there’s no designated source for the remaining funds.

Businesses have been hard hit as well. In Eagle River, a pawn shop and a McDonald’s were torn down due to quake damage, and as of the end of November both buildings were still being rebuilt. Other businesses have been forced to close entirely due to the disruption in sales.

[Part 1: Last year’s 7.1 earthquake woke Alaska up. Experts say it wasn’t a true test of our readiness.]

[Part 2: How a few seconds of shifting deep below the Earth’s surface caused the biggest earthquake in Anchorage since 1964]

[Part 3: Experts say earthquake damage was worse outside Anchorage’s building safety area due to lax oversight]

Some lost homes and dreams

One symbol of the quake remains as an ugly reminder that all is not well for some residential property owners trying to pick up the pieces. Since the earthquake destroyed a two-story home in Eagle River last November, a chain-link fence has been installed around the formerly two-story home, which over the past year has slumped into the ground like a melting snowman.

For homeowner Daric Harkless, the wrecked pile of wood and broken windows is a painful reminder that as more obvious quake damage heals, lives remain broken and futures uncertain for the thousands of people whose lives and communities were shaken up by the largest natural disaster to hit Alaska in decades.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Harkless said last month from New York, where her husband is stationed as a captain in the U.S. Army.

According to the state of Alaska, more than 10,500 damage claims were filed with the federal government in the months following the quake. A total of 4,333 individuals and households have received help under the Individual and Household program, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency paying out about $26.2 million in grants.

None of that spending has gone to the Harkless family, which was ineligible for FEMA grants because they were renting their house out at the time it collapsed.

The Small Business Administration has also given out $73 million in low-cost loans, but Harkless said borrowing more money to demolish a house she and her husband still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars on wasn’t an option, either.

An online crowdfunding effort generated a couple months’ worth of hope, and savings have allowed them to keep making payments on the house they once dreamed of returning to. But without tenants, their savings have dwindled. They once dreamed of returning to live in the home full time. Now they don’t have enough money to remove the pile of rubble from the end of the cul-de-sac.

“It’s not that we can’t make payments, it’s that there’s no house to make payments for,” she said.

They’ve contacted a lawyer and are looking at the cheapest way to walk away from the rubble. After that, it’s anybody’s guess.

“We’re just running out of time.”

The Harkless family is among thousands who have found earthquake recovery to be a frustrating experience rife with disappointment, compromise and a healthy dose of reality.

Homeowners look to feds for help

For Dr. Steve and Alicia Baker of Eagle River, that lesson came in the form of $3,000 in federal disaster relief to help rebuild a half-million-dollar home that will need an estimated $300,000 in repairs. For six months after the quake, the Bakers and their two sons with special needs lived in the basement of the damaged four-bedroom, three-bath house near the center of a cluster of Eagle River Valley homes that sustained unusually heavy damage.

Recently the family moved into military housing on nearby Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (Steve’s an Air Force veteran) while contractors work to repair the home. They’ll spend the holidays cramped into enlisted quarters on base, hoping to be home by spring.

In addition to cracked walls throughout, the Baker house lost its brick siding, needs to be reattached to the foundation and must have its entryway redone. But even a $200,000 loan won’t cover all the damage, he said.

“Some of this comes out as we tear out walls and realize what else is there."

One neighbor had his house torn down while another has been going through nearly nonstop repairs since the day after the quake. All remain in various states of disrepair and with various hurdles between the owners and normalcy.

“We’re all kind of in the same boat for the most part,” he said.

Quake victims a target for scammers

In East Anchorage, Antonia “Pastor Toni” Castillo will spend the holidays at home, one of the many things she’s thankful for despite getting scammed by an unlicensed contractor whose mouth worked a lot harder than his hammer.

“God provides," Castillo said from her cozy Penland Park mobile home, where a small back room remains partially separated from the main house.

Castillo said she got $1,600 from FEMA to repair some of the damage, which included wall cracks, a busted refrigerator, an uneven floor and a saggy ceiling.

But much of the grant money ended up in the pockets of guy who called himself “Shorty” and promised park residents he could fix their broken homes good and cheap and fast. Shorty wasn’t good but he did pull a fast one, making off with Castillo’s cash after jacking up her home a few inches but leaving a large gap open to the elements.

After Shorty came up short, Castillo had resigned herself to the fact the home she’s lived in for 27 years would remain broken. But then her phone rang, and instead of asking for help someone was offering.

On the other end was a case worker from the Anchorage/Eagle River Long Term Recovery Group, a nonprofit made up mostly of local churches whose mission is to help those who can’t otherwise be helped. Group treasurer Alan Budahl explained FEMA refers everyone who applies for assistance to the group, which reaches out to those in need and tries to serve the most vulnerable.

“A lot of people are still suffering,” Budahl said.

The group sent volunteers to shore up Shorty’s gap, properly re-level the home and make a plan to repair the rest of the damage this spring. It’s not a lot, but it’s a prayer answered for Castillo, who noted the volunteers completed the work with smiles and without swearing.

“They were amazing men,” she said.

Faith-based groups and private charities have helped fill some of the gaps left for people who still need help. Budahl said his group has three lists of projects it tries to complete for folks -- those that can be taken care of immediately, those that might be able to be done this winter and those that will have to wait until next spring. The group relies on donations and does whatever it can, trying to focus on getting as much bang for its bucks.

One of the easiest ways to make a difference, he said, is simply listening. Some people are still afraid to return to creaky homes, he said; others have nightmares.

“For a lot of people it’s just to know they didn’t experience it by themselves,” he said.

A new hope

For many, the upshot of the Nov. 30 quake has not been been the multimillion-dollar rebuilding effort but the renewed bonds that have grown between people within the community.

Steve and Alicia Baker said their family is counting its blessings despite spending Christmas away from home because of the outpouring of support they received after their home was damaged.

“There was just people we didn’t even know that said, ‘Hey, let us help you out,’” Baker said.

Despite getting scammed, Castillo said she has no time to be bitter — she’s got soup to cook for the dozens of homeless people she volunteers to feed each weekend in downtown.

“It’s what I do.”

And the growing Harkless family (Daric and Michael had their second child five months after the quake) is still determined to return to Alaska one day despite seeing their dreams crushed on Nov. 30, 2018.

“Maybe this house wasn’t meant to be," Daric Harkless said. “But maybe we can find a place that’s even better.”

Their home may be gone and their future unclear, but Harkless said the quake hasn’t broken her family. Far from it.

“We’re just trying to make the best out of a bad situation."

Matt Tunseth

Matt Tunseth is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and former editor of the Alaska Star.

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at