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Mat-Su

Earthquake-damaged Mat-Su school to remain closed the rest of the school year

Earthquake damaged classroom at Houston Middle School on Monday, Dec. 3. 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN)

PALMER — One school in Mat-Su was so badly damaged by Friday’s earthquake that it won’t reopen this school year, and the status of five others remains up in the air.

The quake’s epicenter was in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the second-largest municipality in Alaska with more than 100,000 residents, about a third of whom work in Anchorage. The magnitude 7.0 quake shredded asphalt around the borough, but wreaked most havoc near the epicenter on Point MacKenzie, near the borough’s port.

At least 117 people here reported mostly minor injuries such as bruises, cuts or anxiety, according to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center. Some reported broken bones. One Houston resident suffered serious smoke inhalation trying to put out a post-quake fire at his home before responders arrived.

Mat-Su school officials on Monday announced that, while many schools should reopen this week, at least a half-dozen others may face longer repair times.

And Houston Middle School, where concrete blocks cracked amid the wild shaking, is too damaged to reopen by May, Mat-Su Borough School District Superintendent Monica Goyette said at a news conference Monday. The district will have to find another plan for the school’s nearly 400 students for the rest of year: most likely making a 6-12 school out of neighboring Houston High School and putting the middle-schoolers in portables.

Crumbled concrete cinder blocks came to rest near hallway lockers at Houston Middle School on Monday, Dec. 3. 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Five other schools are too damaged to reopen immediately, officials say: Colony High School and Middle School; Houston High School; Finger Lake Elementary; and Knik Elementary. Some may just need items like ceiling tiles or parts that aren’t available in Alaska. The extent of damage is different in each school, district spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said. Officials should know more about start dates at the schools by Wednesday.

Almost 30 schools should reopen to students by Thursday, according to a district list of school opening projections. Others were expected to reopen by Monday.

Students will be on bottled water, with a boil-water order in place at schools, Goyette said. She said the district is working to accommodate students in closed schools who left personal belongings inside, though at Houston Middle that will involve a weeklong process and a moving crew -- once the school is deemed safe.

Elsewhere, the municipality was shifting to repair and rebuild mode.

It wasn’t yet clear how many homes or businesses were significantly damaged in Mat-Su. So far, only 10 people had reported damage to their houses, according to the borough emergency manager.

Big Lake’s library and the public pool at Palmer High School were closed until further notice while both facilities are being inspected for damage, borough officials said in an update Monday morning. Palmer is the borough’s only open public pool, with the other one at Wasilla closed for renovations.

The port at Point MacKenzie, where the quake was centered, is still operational but experienced damage as well. The port, which is running deep in the red, was already costing millions in unrelated repair costs. Damage includes the terminal building, a barge dock that was under repair, and a conveyor belt.

U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan arrived at Big Lake’s airport in a Black Hawk helicopter around midday Monday for a tour of quake damage, starting at Houston Middle School.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski looks at damage in the ceiling at Houston Middle School on Monday, Dec. 3. 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Sen. Dan Sullivan walks through a damaged hallway during a tour of the earthquake damaged Houston Middle School on Monday, Dec. 3. 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Sullivan after the tour said he heard “stories of heroic actions” such as students helping others as they panicked to get out safely.

“To me, the image of these big, cracked cinder blocks falling from the ceiling and not hitting somebody on the head, it’s just remarkable,” he said.

The quake occurred about 30 miles beneath Point MacKenzie across Knik Arm from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The epicenter was about a quarter-mile from Point MacKenzie Road, where it makes a 90-degree turn toward the borough port.

The shaking initially knocked out power to 50,000 people in the borough. Borough firefighters, especially in the Wasilla area, responded to dozens of calls ranging from people trapped beneath debris to water- and gas-line breaks to structure fires.

Wasilla-based dispatchers fielded calls for 16 gas leaks, 11 medical problems, and three structure fires in just the first 60 minutes after the quake, according to a tally of MATCOM dispatch calls provided Monday by the Wasilla Police Department, which houses the dispatch center. At least two of the fires were quake-related: a space heater tipped over, and something dropped on a burner, igniting it.

The center was at normal staffing when the quake hit. But dispatchers, disregarding the ceiling tiles that fell around them, continued to work and were joined by additional off-duty coworkers who came to the center without notification, police chief Gene Belden said in a message.

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Officials are steering residents to a website where they can report damage.

People on private wells, which make up the majority of water sources in the borough, reported some issues with cloudiness in water.

Amy Hill’s water actually turned black Saturday afternoon. Hill, the Wasilla-based drinking water program coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said during a borough press conference Monday evening that she flushed her system for an hour and the situation improved.

Hill said cloudy water should clear in hours or days. She recommended calling a contractor if it doesn’t, and getting a water sample tested for possible contaminants. Well owners should check for water backing up, or foul sewage odors.

City water in Wasilla and Palmer is safe to drink, officials say. But some subdivisions on community water systems that lost water pressure or experienced water main breaks are on boil-water orders, Hill said.

The spectacular damage to borough roads in the Valley took center stage at Monday night’s press conference. Along with the now nationally famous images of a shattered section of Vine Road, there are possibly hundreds of roads around the borough with damage, according to public works director Terry Dolan.

Two roads in particular took the brunt of the shaking: busy connector Vine, near Wasilla, which sank and buckled in the area of a swamp and cannot be crossed; and Point MacKenzie Road, a two-laner that provides access to Goose Creek Correctional Center and sustained serious damage, though it’s still passable.

The quake buckled and cracked a “couple-hundred-foot segment” of roadway on Vine, Dolan said. Crews plan to start work on a temporary fix Tuesday to have the road repaired by week’s end. The road serves as a shortcut from Knik-Goose Bay Road to Big Lake and other areas.

Officials discouraged earthquake tourism there as locals posted videos to social media over the weekend showing children scrambling around deep fissures in the asphalt.

Alaska State Troopers on Monday afternoon urged the public to “please stay away from Vine Road in Wasilla. Work crews are attempting to assess the damages and begin repair work. Motorists and onlookers traversing Vine Road to see the damages are inadvertently delaying the efforts.”

Point MacKenzie Road was passable but needed to be repaired so plows could clear snow Monday, Leaders said. Subsidence in marshy areas left cracks with lips up to 4 inches. One crack is eight feet deep, Dolan said.

West Susitna Parkway in Big Lake experienced widespread cracking, he said. Eleven other roads including Trunk Road, Beaver Lake Road and Settlers Bay Drive also suffered damage.

Drivers were also detouring around damage to Pittman Road in Meadow Lakes. Numerous other roads also experienced lesser damage, including Palmer-Wasilla Highway near Palmer and Hawk Lane in Houston.

Every borough-owned building in the core area around Palmer and Wasilla experienced at least minor damage, Dolan said.

The Alaska Department of Transportation is starting temporary repair work on six places in Mat-Su, according to field engineer Todd Smith: the area of the Old Glenn Highway overpass on the Glenn Highway; the Glenn-Parks Interchange; and two sections of the Glenn near Sutton at Mile 55 and 58. The state is also working on fixes for Clark-Wolverine Road and Pittman Road.

The Big Lake Lions Recreation Center, which includes an ice rink, will need to spend $75,000 to repair damage including to the sprinkler system, plumbing and light fixtures and ceiling tiles, according to a GoFundMe post.

The only movie theater in Mat-Su, The Valley Cinema, was closed Monday due to quake damage. Stores in Wasilla — Fred Meyer and Target included — remained closed over at least part of the weekend as cleanup continued. Some residents are still cleaning up. Others report structural damage that will take much longer to repair.

The Target store in Wasilla reopened Monday, the last of the city’s big-box stores to do so after the quake.

The borough port is still able to receive ship traffic, though it’s been some time since a ship called there.

Engineers inspecting the above-ground parts of the port Sunday found the terminal building, built for $4 million to serve a commuter ferry that never came, experienced some cracked drywall and cracked tile grout, according to the borough update Monday. A barge dock that’s been the subject of costly repairs experienced “minor subsidence” along the dock’s north side, triggering a recommendation for grading in spring. One high mast is leaning, and contractors are preparing repair plans.

Roads leading to the port are damaged. So is the conveyor built as part of a long-ago wood-chip venture.

The borough holds an emergency meeting Tuesday afternoon to start moving money around to pay for repairs.

ADN reporter Madeline McGee contributed reporting.

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