Quince Mountain, a professional dog-musher, was in a hotel in Wasilla, Alaska, when the 7.0 quake hit. He awoke in an unfamiliar bed to rattling, clattering and shaking.
“I thought it was my wife, Blair, pounding on the door to wake me up,” Mountain recounted on Saturday. The couple hunkered down in the bathroom before evacuating.
As they drove north, Mountain was surprised to find a few businesses still open, including a gas station to fuel up his diesel truck and a dog supply store operating by headlamps. He bought 500 pounds of beef for his dogs.
“I was surprised by how much damage there wasn’t,” Mountain said Saturday as Alaskans took stock of their state after the powerful earthquake the day before.
To be sure, residents of south central Alaska remained on edge as aftershocks continued rattling the region. Officials and emergency responders were still assessing damage to infrastructure, buildings and utilities, with disruptions expected to last for days. Schools have already been shut down in Anchorage through Tuesday for building inspections.
Some of the most severe damage was to the major highway heading north out of Anchorage, connecting bedroom communities with smaller, more rugged towns in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys. By Friday, aerial images had begun circulating of enormous chunks of highway sloughed off across all three lanes. The situation created havoc for commuters stuck in town, unable to pick up children or assess damage to their homes. Traffic began crawling after a detour route was established, but the damage left one of the state’s main corridors barely operable.
“The Glenn Highway will continue to be a challenge,” City Manager Bill Falsey said at a Saturday morning briefing. “I think it’s going to be the biggest challenge as we move into the next phase of this response.”
Other roads in Anchorage and farther flung towns also saw severe damage, and repair crews were out in force.
A forecast calling for high winds and several inches of snow could mean additional challenges. But officials sounded almost blase.
“This is going to benormal Alaska winter weather,” said Fire Chief Jodie Hettrick.
Still, more than anything, there is a palpable sense of relief in Alaska over what didn’t happen. There were no reports of deaths from the earthquake. Hospitalsin Anchorage said theywere seeing minor injuries, but primarily from cleanup efforts, such as cuts from broken glass. The Fire Department reported a small number of structure fires shortly after the quake, but residents had already evacuated and were safe.
By Saturday morning, nearly all electricity in the earthquake zone had been restored. Water was flowing through city pipes, with no evidence of contamination. Just 61 people used emergency shelter space that the local government and Red Cross opened for those with nowhere else to go.
Although this was one of the strongest earthquakes to rock Anchorage in historical memory, much of the city’s resilience is the legacy of the vastly more powerful Good Friday earthquake of 1964, a magnitude 9.2 catastrophe that lasted nearly five minutes and destroyed large parts of Anchorage, then caused a far deadlier tsunami that destroyed towns throughout a broad swath of Alaska. Building codes are now strict, schoolchildren are drilled on what to do in seismic events, and preparedness is a mainstay in many people’s daily lives.
The city’s strict construction standards “played a significant role,” according to Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. “When you know that you live in earthquake country, you build accordingly.”
Residents are generally well prepared for natural disasters. Though many in Alaska’s more rugged, rural and far-flung communities look down their noses at Anchorage for its relatively mild climate and citified ways, the municipality is home to an impressive number of outdoor enthusiasts, hunters, wilderness adventurers and suburban survivalists. Many people live in the area specifically for the easy access to extreme outdoor conditions, and are well equipped to handle events like an earthquake.
“This is Anchorage. We’re Alaskans,” said Police Chief Justin Doll. “We get disaster; we know how to do this.”
Angela Libal owns Tidal Wave Books, a used bookstore in west Anchorage. The earthquake wreaked havoc in her sprawling showroom.
“It just looked awful,” Libal said. Books were everywhere, posters toppled, material hanging from the ceiling. The warehouse upstairs was even worse.
“Those shelves danced all around,” she said. Her inventory of books, measured from the floor upward, was about “calf height, mid-knee.”
Libal got an outpouring of support from friends and volunteers who showed up on Saturday morning to coffee and baked goods, then immediately set about putting the store back together. Everything was off the floor by about 11 a.m.
Aftershocks have been one of the most stubborn effects of the quake, keeping people edgy as brief jolts slam buildings like sudden gusts of wind. Hundreds have followed since Friday morning. More than a dozen of those have been stronger than magnitude 4.0, some even hitting 5.
“Every one of those, in the normal course, would have been a real, no-kidding Alaska earthquake,” Falsey said. “For a lot of people in town this event has not ended. The earth has not stopped shaking for the last 24 hours.”
Across social media, people complained of not being able to sleep and leaping out of bed at every faint tremble. Falsey advised that if people are feeling “twitchy,” it is not just in their heads, but more likely from residual adrenaline and the lingering effects of Friday’s jolt. The city is trying to publicize strategies for the mental wellness of residents and pets.
“I would characterize this as a demonstration of what this city is supposed to be all about,” Berkowitz said. “People pulled together. We followed the plans that were in place. We looked after one another.
“And when people around the country and around the world look at us they’re gonna say, ‘We want to do things the Anchorage way,’ because Anchorage did this right.”