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Editorials

In the earthquake aftermath, where are the silver linings — and what are the warnings?

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 15, 2018
  • Published December 15, 2018

Josh Baker, left, helps his dad clean up brick siding in Eagle River on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. Steve Baker's home was badly damaged during a strong earthquake that shook Southcentral Alaska on Nov. 30. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Two weeks after a magnitude 7 earthquake shook Southcentral, we’re beginning to get a picture of the damage, the costs of recovery and the places that suffered most. As homeowners and organizations alike take stock of their situations, almost universally, the response is gratitude.

“There’s so many ways we’re lucky,” Eagle River resident Rick Walburn said after the house he and his husband were renting partially collapsed.

The other side of the coin, however, is that we shouldn’t let the relatively limited damage inflicted by the recent quake lull us into the false impression that we’re better prepared to weather such an event in the future. Here are some silver linings — and warnings — the earthquake exposed.

Casualties

The silver lining: By far, the brightest, most optimistic indication of our earthquake readiness and resilience came in the fact that no Alaskans perished in the earthquake. That’s no small thing: Other earthquakes of a similar magnitude have killed hundreds and thousands of people elsewhere in the world — a 2009 magnitude 6.3 earthquake in central Italy killed more than 300 people and injured 1,500. Credit goes to Anchorage’s engineers, inspectors, seismologists and public servants who pushed for changes to building codes and zoning after the 1964 quake, reinforcing buildings and keeping the city’s biggest buildings away from areas known to be prone to soil liquefaction.

The warning: Just because there weren’t deaths doesn’t mean there couldn’t have been. We got lucky both in that the earthquake wasn’t larger and that people weren’t in places that would have placed them in more immediate danger. We should study the additional data this earthquake has provided us on areas that are potentially at risk of ground failure and make sure we’re still abiding by best practices in determining where and how it’s safe to build homes and commercial properties.

Supply chain disruptions

The silver lining: “Alaska is essentially an island” from the point of view of transporting goods, said Port of Alaska External Affairs Director Jim Jager on Thursday, and the state has one major ingress point: the port. At the time of the earthquake, a liner was offloading jet fuel, which could have been disastrous if things went wrong. But nothing did. The liner halted its transfer, stayed an extra day in port while workers checked to make sure there were no leaks in the pipes and lines the fuel flowed through, then went on its way. “We dodged a bullet," he said.

The warning: The port wasn’t the only potential point of failure for Alaska’s transportation infrastructure, and not all of the state’s roads, railways and other avenues are or can be hardened enough to guard against potential quake damage and disruption. “None of these systems work independently; it’s all interconnected,” Jager said. “If one link in the chain fails, it all fails." Some links did fail — the quake damaged roads and railways, and although Department of Transportation and Alaska Railroad crews worked swiftly to reopen transportation arteries, it’s a reminder of how completely Alaska depends on Outside shipments of food and material goods, particularly in winter. In the event of a disaster that cripples them, we will be left with the supplies we have on hand, so we would be wise to make sure we have enough to live on until infrastructure is patched and shipments can resume.

Property damage

The silver lining: The extensive but mostly minor quake damage is a windfall for Anchorage-area contractors and trade workers such as plumbers and electricians. Suddenly, there are thousands of residential and commercial finish jobs — drywall, painting and fixture repairs — that will provide a sort of “earthquake stimulus” to the local economy. The injection of millions of dollars in infrastructure spending and relief aid to the Alaska economy could have the beneficial effect of helping lift the city and state out of the recession that started after the oil price slump in late 2014 and 2015.

The warning: The money to fix that damage has to come from somewhere, and although millions of dollars in federal aid have already been made available, a portion of that burden will fall on residents — some of whom are not able to afford it. In the months to come, that hardship for residents may have considerable secondary impacts on city and state services, not to mention the potential devaluation of property, hurting the municipality’s tax base. The Anchorage Assembly should form contingency plans for budget shortfalls that result.

On the whole, Southcentral did get lucky when it came to the Nov. 30 earthquake’s severity and the breadth of its damage. But that shouldn’t make us complacent. Now is the time for a hard look at the warnings the earthquake gave us, and to work to minimize the potential damage from a future disaster.

The views expressed here are those of the Anchorage Daily News, as expressed by its editorial board, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Current editorial board members are Ryan Binkley, Andy Pennington, Julia O’Malley, Tom Hewitt and Andrew Jensen. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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