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Alaska Visitors Guide

Earthquakes and aftershocks: Here’s what to do if things get shaky

Travel brochures tout Alaska’s gorgeous scenery, amazing wildlife and delicious seafood — but may omit one potentially anxiety-inducing fact: You’re in earthquake country now.

The Alaska Earthquake Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (earthquake.alaska.edu) reports an average of one earthquake every 15 minutes in the 49th state, noting some 40,000 quakes in 2014 alone. Generally speaking, most Alaska earthquakes are either so small or centered in a place so remote, you’d never they happened. But, according to the center, Alaska is so geologically active that you can experience a magnitude 6.0 or 7.0 anywhere in the state.

Say Anchorage, for instance. On Nov. 30, 2018, to be exact.

Folks across town were just beginning their day when the big one struck. To be fair, the 7.1 quake wasn’t as big or as lengthy as the really big one — the famous, state-shaping 1964 Good Friday 9.2 earthquake — but it was big enough to trigger a tsunami warning, make international headlines, rip apart highways, knock houses off foundations, topple chimneys, shatter valuables and remind even the toughest Alaskans of our shared vulnerability.

Vine Road, south of Wasilla, was heavily damaged by an earthquake on November 30, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Then the aftershocks began, and this is where savvy visitors should take note: They aren’t over yet.

An earthquake as large as the Nov. 30 event is not a one-and-done scenario. Experts warned aftershocks would last for months afterward. The 9.2 Good Friday quake, for example, saw aftershocks rolling through the region for more than a year, with 11 registering 6.0 or greater.

In the case of Anchorage’s November 2018 quake, nearly 3,000 shakers were recorded just over two weeks after the initial event.

Many were small enough to go unnoticed. However, there have been big ones, 4.0 or higher — jarring, unsettling reminders of the scary seconds the earth shook Nov. 30.

If you experience an aftershock, remember these things:

This is normal

Earthquakes strike in clusters. Seismologists call the big one the “mainshock," which is followed by aftershocks until regional seismic activity settles down to its original levels. Aftershocks aside, earthquakes in Alaska are normal too. Fairbanks’ earthquake information center reported 150,000 earthquakes in Alaska over the last five years. Of the 5.0 earthquakes that strike the U.S., 75 percent are in Alaska.

You’re more likely to feel a quake if you’re on a higher-up floor in a tall structure or in an older, less quake-proof building. Similarly, if you’re in a moving vehicle, you’re likely to miss it.

Don’t panic

Earthquakes and aftershocks can be unsettling, scary and stressful; it’s important to stay calm. If you’re with a guided group or in a public place, pay attention, and follow directions if you are asked to move to a different area. Keep an eye on your traveling companions and be aware of people that may need extra support.

Take cover

Conventional earthquake safety taught us to head for doorways. That turns out to be conditionally true, based on the structure — and who has time to figure that out when things are shaking? Experts suggest you take cover beneath a sturdy desk or table and hold on tight. The table might move and that’s OK. Be prepared to be flexible and move with it until the shaking stops.

Stay away from windows

Exterior walls, windows and facades may be most vulnerable in a big quake, so if you’re near them, seek out a secure structure to shelter beneath, such as a table or desk. If you’re outside, stay outside, and don’t try to enter a building.

If you’re driving

It’s unlikely you’ll feel an earthquake while driving, but if you do, pull over, taking care not to stop beneath an overpass or other vulnerable area. Wait it out. Stay inside the vehicle. As in any emergency situation, if a power line is down on your vehicle, wait for help.

Get online

Really! After an earthquake, the only thing with more activity than that wiggly Richter scale line is the social media and app universe. Alaskans’ social feeds erupt with magnitude predictions and check-ins after any sizable quake, usually launching stress-diffusing and self-deprecating memes.

There are also websites and apps that can answer questions after the quake, such as where it occurred, how deep it was, and its estimated magnitude. The Alaska Earthquake Information Center site (and Twitter feed @AKearthquake) and the U.S. Tsunami Warning System (www.tsunami.gov) are two great resources.

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