‘Major’ damage to Anchorage area after severe 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Alaska
ANCHORAGE — Chris Riekena was driving with his 7-year-old son when the road beneath their car began to shake.
Riekena, an engineer with the state Department of Transportation, thought he blew a tire, so he pulled to the shoulder. Then he saw the row of streetlights above him swaying and he saw the red SUV in front of him sink into the road.
A severe earthquake, rated 7.0 on the moment-magnitude scale, ripped across the Anchorage area Friday at 8:29 a.m., Alaska Time. Buildings roiled, roads cracked and thousands lost power during the morning commute. Dramatic scenes like the one Riekena witnessed on Minnesota Drive played out across the highest populated city in Alaska.
The SUV “sank, and then it sank some more. It was a slow process — about 30 to 40 seconds,” Riekena said as a National Guard helicopter passed overhead. “In a way it was exciting and it wasn’t because it was so slow.”
The off-ramp he and his son were just driving on had buckled into a dozen massive slabs of asphalt. The driver of the red SUV walked away unharmed, Riekena said.
Local and state officials spent the rest of the day assessing damage, the extent of which remained unclear Friday afternoon, though it included “major infrastructure damage across Anchorage,” according to the police department. Utility companies and cooperatives reported more than 50,000 customers lost power on Friday, though the number of outages fell as the day went on and electricity was restored.
Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for Alaska’s state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said the situation was still evolving while aftershocks continued.
“Right now, we’re asking people to drop, cover and hold on when they feel earthquakes,” he said.
Anchorage Fire Chief Jodie Hettrick said at a briefing authorities were contacted about possible building collapses, but she did not provide more information. The Alaska Department of Transportation said that due to reports of damage in Anchorage as well as surrounding areas, crews were sent out to inspect roads and bridges. The earthquake cracked and otherwise damaged highways, while a rock slide shut down one highway.
The scene after a powerful earthquake strikes near Anchorage
View Photos A magnitude-7 quake occurred around 8:30 a.m., local time, with the epicenter just north of Anchorage.
Michelle Tobia, the manager at Bell’s Nursery in Anchorage, was in her two-story house next to the store when the earthquake hit. “The whole house was rolling is what it felt like,” Tobia said. She grabbed her dog, Daisy, a husky-Labrador mix, and ran upstairs to shelter under a door frame.
After the shaking stopped, “stuff was everywhere,” she said. “Glasses off the counter tops, DVDs spewing out of the TV stand.”
The plant nursery next door was dark and the parking lot empty. Inside, a cleaning crew was picking up pots of poinsettias and toppled Christmas trees. Tobia said she was confident they would reopen by the afternoon when the lights were back on and employees had a chance to clean up their own homes.
Police officers were dispatched across the region to handle “multiple situations,” the department said. A journalist with the news station KTVA shared a photo of the damage in that newsroom, where pieces of the ceiling had apparently fallen on desks and the floor. The Minnesota Drive off-ramp near Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport drew a string of spectators.
Keri Scaggs and her neighbor RieAnn Fullwood snapped selfies in front of the collapsed road as a third neighbor, still in her bathrobe, waited for them in the car. Scaggs clutched a bottle of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, while Fullwood snuggled her cat. The pair fled their cabins in the Spenard neighborhood after the tsunami warning.
“I grabbed the essentials,” Scaggs said. “Birth certificate, passport and Pappy Van Winkle,” she said, cradling the whiskey bottle in the crook of her elbow.
The Federal Aviation Administration had declared a ground stop at the airport after the earthquake. At 11:30 a.m. in Anchorage, the FAA said it had begun letting flights depart from the airport, but the ground stop was kept in place for arrivals.
Samuel Shea, the science operations officer at the National Weather Service in Anchorage, said his drive from the office to his home in South Anchorage, which usually takes around 10 minutes, was 40 minutes on Friday after the earthquake.
“It was terrifying,” Shea said. “I mean, we have magnitude fives, sixes — we deal with earthquakes all the time, and this was the strongest I’ve ever felt, and the most terrifying minute of my life.” Several hours after the initial quake, aftershocks were still rolling across the region, and “it just stops your heart” when they happen, he said.
The National Weather Service in Anchorage briefly suspended operations on Friday morning after the tsunami warning was issued. All of the office’s duties were handed over to the Fairbanks office, and the meteorologists and staff evacuated. Operations resumed at the Anchorage office after the warning was canceled.
[Remembering the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, the largest in U.S. history]
The earthquake hit as students were on their way to school, about 30 minutes before classes would start. The Anchorage School District canceled Monday and Tuesday classes while it assessed damage to its facilities.
“Take care of your families,” the district’s superintendent, Deena Bishop, wrote on its website.
The University of Alaska Anchorage closed its campus on Friday after the earthquake, urging all nonessential personnel to leave and warning people to stay away from the campus.
Chancellor Cathy Sandeen posted online that while the university sustained some damage, there was “no word of injuries, thankfully.” She also posted a photograph showing the damage to one of the rooms on campus, which was littered with ceiling tiles that had fallen down.
Major earthquake in Anchorage this morning. @uaanchorage is closed. We have some damage. Currently assessing. No word of injuries, thankfully. Power still OK. This is one of our conference rooms. Kudos to our Incident Management Team for quick response. We are fortunate.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates a low probability of fatalities from the earthquake. Estimated economic losses are most likely between $100 million and $1 billion, which is an “orange alert,” according to the survey’s algorithms. “Past events with this alert level have required a regional or national level response,” the center said on its website.
Friday’s quake occurred on a fault line between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates, the USGS said. The rupture between the faults occurred in an area where the Pacific plate is moving underneath Alaska.
The National Tsunami Warning Center often issues advisories immediately following an earthquake on a high-risk fault line, such as the one underneath Anchorage, like it did Friday morning. The center then revises the warnings based on observations.
Anchorage was severely damaged in March 1964 by the Great Alaska Earthquake, a 9.2-magnitude quake with its epicenter about 75 miles east of the city. That quake, which lasted for about four-and-a-half minutes, was the most powerful earthquake recorded in U.S. history. It destroyed a major part of downtown Anchorage and caused a tsunami that ravaged towns on the Gulf of Alaska and beyond.
Dozens of aftershocks rippled across the region through Friday afternoon, according to the USGS, including a 5.8-magnitude aftershock in the city of Anchorage