Last Friday morning, a train went through my house.
At least, that’s the way I’ve been describing it to my loved ones back home. When we experience something we didn’t know could exist so powerfully, we tend to grasp for analogies we understand. So for me, it felt like someone had decided overnight to redirect the Alaska Railroad over my house.
I’m not quite an Alaskan. I’m not even convinced I’ve managed to shake the “tourist” label yet. I stepped off the plane at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport a month ago, woefully undereducated and underdressed. That said, when I moved to Anchorage from Atlanta, I believed I had some idea what to expect: icy roads, Xtratufs, Kaladi Bros. Coffee, breathtaking views.
What I didn’t expect was that I might — while standing in my bathroom, of all places — come face-to-face with a question I hadn’t ever given much thought: What do you do when your house is bursting at the seams, when the ceiling is flirting with collapse, when it sounds like the apocalypse is happening upstairs?
Throughout my city, I imagined, everyone else was responding appropriately. Their muscle memory was kicking in, their years of duck-cover-hold drills were returning to them. Me? No one had ever told me what to do. I’ve been through all manner of evil weather — hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires — but nothing like this. Nothing that didn’t give me at least a few minutes to get out of the way.
I thought I remembered something about doorways being the safest place to be during an earthquake, so I stumbled into the nearest one. My uber-rudimentary understanding of physics has gaps big enough to fly a plane through, but I suspected the doorway advice was probably an urban legend — why would a hole in the wall be more structurally sound than other places? But it was all I had to hold onto, so that’s what I did.
For about 30 seconds, I was absolutely convinced that less than two weeks into my job as a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, I was going to depart this world buried under the debris of my own home. I was going to die the most quintessentially cheechako death possible.
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Then the shaking stopped. I stuck around just long enough to ask my newly awakened sister, “That was an earthquake, right?” Then I was out the door — not because I was afraid to stay inside, though perhaps I should have been, but because even though I didn’t fully grasp what had just happened, it was up to newsrooms like mine to make sure other people did.
The details emerged over the course of the day. Roads had buckled, water pipes had burst, homes had caught fire, buildings flooded, railroad tracks ruined, dishes smashed, children (and adults) frightened. One particularly terrifying section of Vine Road out in the Mat-Su looked as though God had reached down and punched it.
I did lots of things that day I wish I hadn’t had to do. I followed a plume of smoke to a burning house in South Anchorage and did what little I could to comfort the woman who had lived there. I bought a Lyft ride for a woman stranded at the Egan Center’s makeshift emergency shelter. I began my greetings with “Are you doing OK?”
That was a week ago. Even though repairs are continuing throughout the municipality and the Mat-Su Borough, what’s most striking to me today is how quickly the city I now call home has returned to a sense of normalcy. An earthquake happened, you guys. Some 794,328,234,724,282 joules of energy were just unleashed upon Southcentral Alaska, and the grocery stores and coffee shops are open (mostly).
Alaska accomplished an infrastructure feat I didn’t know was possible. Five days after the equivalent of 199,000 tons of TNT rocked the region, the roads are passable. The water is clean. The gas has stopped leaking. The trains are running. The school system is about to reopen. A Minnesota Drive on-ramp shattered like a china plate, and today, people are driving on it. Alaskans have picked themselves up and moved on with what looks to be barely a stumble, and it all happened in a week.
(To give some context for why this is amazing, I lived near Atlanta when a couple inches of snow brought the city to a screeching halt for days in 2013.)
Of course, the region didn’t just magnetize itself back together. People did it quickly, efficiently and with astounding compassion. When I arrived at ChangePoint Church the day after the earthquake, the knee-high flooding that Pastor Scott Merriner told me had saturated the place on Friday was nowhere to be seen. In its place, hundreds of volunteers were operating wet vacuums, wiping down water-damaged walls and redecorating Christmas trees. The woman who lost her house in the fire was taken in, at least for the time being, by a neighbor. I saw one displaced man at the emergency shelter downtown offer another what little food he had on him.
I recently told family members that I didn’t know what an “Alaskan” looked like. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from someone who told me they were from Alaska. My sister-in-law, a lifelong Alaskan born in Delta Junction, told me, “they’re very resilient.” And of course that makes sense. How else do you survive months of dark and cold? How else do you go about your day when a geological event of divine proportions tries to destroy you?
Since Friday, lots of people have wryly told me,“Welcome to Alaska.” In a way, though, this is a better welcome than most. It’s only been a month, and I’ve already seen an enormous spectrum of uniquely Alaskan fortitude. And more importantly, I’ve seen how dependent that fortitude is on community and love.
Welcome to Alaska, indeed. I hope one day I can live up to the title.
Madeline McGee is a breaking news reporter and the newest Alaskan in the Anchorage Daily News newsroom.
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