Southcentral Alaska was rocked by a strong and prolonged magnitude-7.1 earthquake early Sunday morning, destroying four homes on the Kenai Peninsula and rattling nerves throughout the region.
The quake struck at 1:30 a.m., according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The Alaska Earthquake Center said it hit on the west side of Cook Inlet, about 65 miles west of Homer and about 160 miles southwest of Anchorage, at a depth of 76 miles. It was felt from Juneau to Fairbanks.
The quake knocked items off shelves and walls and shook buildings throughout Alaska's most populated region. There were no immediate reports of injuries. Isolated power outages were reported throughout the region.
The Kenai Peninsula bore the brunt of the damage. Hours after the quake, Kenai Fire Department crews were still at the scene of a "gas leak/explosion" and several fires in the area of Lilac Lane, off the Kenai Spur Highway. Concerns over continued gas escapement prompted officials to evacuate residents along several roads in the area and establish a shelter at the National Guard Armory in Kenai.
One of the people who lost everything on Sunday after the earthquake is Vinnie Calderon.
Calderon and his family gathered at the armory with others who had lost their homes or who were evacuated along or near Lilac Lane.
Calderon, his fiancee and two children had just moved into a home on Lilac Lane in Kenai recently, after previously spending time homeless and couch-surfing.
Sunday morning, a gas leak after the earthquake caused that house to explode not once, but twice, he said.
Immediately after the quake, Calderon, a tattoo artist, said he smelled gas but that the odor went away. Everyone was getting ready to go back to sleep when "the house came a foot up off the ground" he said.
"We were the first house to explode," Calderon said. "The kids' bunk beds were outside the house -- and they were in them."
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Miraculously, 3-year-old Ayla, 11-year-old Andrew and Calderon's fiancee Carrie were unharmed. Calderon suffered burns on his back but was mostly unharmed.
"I'm amazed that we're okay," he said.
He had ventured back into the house a few hours after the first explosion, accompanied by the fire department, to retrieve a bag of Carrie's medical supplies. Calderon grabbed that, some clothes for the children and a jacket, and went back outside.
Fifteen minutes later, another explosion hit.
Now, aside from family and friends, all Calderon has is $3 to his name, he said.
Theirs was one of four homes on Lilac Lane that were burned to the point of no longer being habitable, said Kenai Fire Chief Jeff Tucker. Those were the only structure fires reported to the Kenai Fire Department in the aftermath of the earthquake, Tucker said.
Overall, about 60 people signed into the armory throughout the day. Sgt. Damian Collum said the armory has up to 100 cots available.
Wal-Mart, Safeway, Home Depot, Fred Meyer, Kaladi Brothers Coffee and others donated food and other goods to the armory, including a $500 payment from Wal-Mart for Carrie's insulin, Calderon said.
As of early evening Cook Inlet View Drive and Wells Way were closed again -- after reopening at 2 p.m. -- due to concerns about "elevated gas levels" at the east end of Lilac Lane, the Kenai Police Department said. Lilac Lane remained closed Sunday evening as the gas utility worked to isolate the four houses that burned and restore service to the rest, Tucker said. Just before 9 p.m., Enstar Natural Gas Company said on Facebook that they had completed repairs at the scene and that they expected the fire department to start letting residents return "within the next couple of hours."
Cracked road draws visitors
The quake opened a sizeable crack in a road in the Kasilof area. According to Shannon McCarthy with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, Kalifornsky Beach Road was closed in the area due to the fissure.
Andrew Sayers, 26, of Kasilof was watching television when the quake struck.
"The house started to shake violently. The TV we were watching fell over, stuff fell off the walls," he said. "Dishes were crashing, and we sprinted toward the doorway."
Later, he was driving to his mother's home when he came across the stretch of K-Beach Road that was damaged in the quake.
"We launched over this crack in the road. It's a miracle we didn't bust our tires on it," he said.
The road became something of an attraction later Sunday as waves of people parked their cars and got out to marvel at the massive cracks wrought in the pavement by the quake.
Kids picked up chunks of frozen gravel. People stared into the crevasses with wonder, especially because most onlookers avoided damage at home.
"We woke up at about 1:30, jumped into the doorways and rode it out," said Brian Moore of Sterling, who was there along with his wife and two sons. A bookcase in their home fell over, but nothing more.
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"The dog slept through it," he said. "We were down for church and came out here to do the Alaska thing (and see the road)."
The road was partly closed, reduced to one lane after blocking off the parts where the pavement collapsed.
Alycia Johnson lives with her husband, son and daughter off Strawberry Road in Kenai. The shaking woke them up Sunday morning and they ran barefoot into their car.
"For some reason we decided we all needed to go into the car," Johnson laughed. They sat there while the shaking continued and went back inside when it was over. She said their home didn't have any damage, though a few pictures fell off the walls.
Robert Winter, a technician with Hilcorp, was out near where the road had faltered to make sure gas lines hadn't been damaged.
"It's been a busy day," he said, adding that he hadn't encountered any problems by Sunday afternoon.
A series of aftershocks followed the quake, including a magnitude 4.7 that struck about four hours after the initial quake and could be felt again in Anchorage.
The Anchorage Fire Department reported it was "very busy with reports of gas odors, alarm systems sounding, broken water lines, etc." in the wake of the earthquake. Anchorage police had no reports of major damage.
Felt in Fairbanks and Juneau
Facebook and Twitter users reported scattered power outages around the region from the quake, which continued for about 30 seconds, and was strong enough to knock objects off shelves in homes and stores around the region.
The Anchorage School District posted a photo of fallen ceiling tiles at Romig Middle School.
District spokeswoman Heidi Embley said Sunday that groups were preparing to assess every school in Anchorage.
Embley said it wasn't clear how long it would take to examine all of the district's nearly 100 buildings.
"They will go until every school is checked," Embley said.
'End of the world'
At 3:15 Sunday morning, the Carrs grocery store on Huffman -- normally open 24 hours -- was closed, with the parking lot nearly empty and the entryway dark. A young man in a black coat pounded on the window. He quickly left in frustration.
Inside, most of the lights were out and a few glass jars of food were broken in the aisles. A maintenance worker said through the crack between the sliding doors that they'd try to reopen at 7 a.m.
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Tom Chouinard, who's lived in Anchorage for 64 years, arrived hoping he could buy batteries for a space heater to warm up his South Anchorage home. "It's getting kind of cool in there," he said. Chouinard said he experienced the magnitude-9.2 quake that devastated the region in 1964, when he was living downtown on Sixth Avenue.
"I thought it was the end of the world," he said of that memorable earthquake. "This one wasn't as bad."
Many, though, said it was the strongest earthquake they'd felt in decades of living in Alaska.
In Homer, just across Cook Inlet from the epicenter, Land's End Resort was full of visitors for the Besh Cup, a cross-country ski race taking place in the town over the weekend. The resort sits on the Homer Spit, a sliver of land that cuts out into Kachemak Bay.
Daniel Brophy, who was working the front desk, said that the earthquake was felt strongly on the Spit. The earthquake didn't trigger any of the numerous tsunami warning systems in place in the area, including sirens and loudspeakers. Brophy checked the tsunami alerts right away, and said the hotel would have also received a call if there was a threat of a wave.
Instead, the biggest problem was a few TV sets that had fallen over in guests' rooms. Still, it was a significant earthquake, he said.
"It felt like being on a rinky-dink boat in a storm, it was a lot of rocking and swaying," he said.
Power outages were reported in pockets all over Anchorage as well as elsewhere in Southcentral. Homer Electric, Matanuska Electric Association, Chugach Electric and Municipal Light and Power all reported outages, with service interruptions ranging from Nikiski and Kasilof to Palmer and Willow.
Social media users said they could feel the temblor as far away as Fairbanks, Kodiak and Juneau.
Aftershocks also rattled the area near the initial quake Sunday morning; the USGS reported earthquakes with magnitudes of 4.0 and 3.2 within a half-hour of the first, stronger earthquake.
Reporter Annie Zak reported from the Kenai Peninsula and Chris Klint, Ben Anderson and Scott Jensen reported from Anchorage.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing