LESSONS LEARNED FROM A 7.0, Anchorage Alaska 11/30/18

(Or: My Dad Knew What He Was Talking About)

Starting out my day with a stiff cup of coffee and a little sewing, about 8:30 a.m. I was suddenly interrupted by a loud bang. After over 40 years in Anchorage, I am used to earthquakes, but this was different. I immediately jumped up and crouched in the doorway, away from tall furniture and large pictures on the wall. The sound was overwhelming, a tremendous banging and crashing. Kind of like listening to an ongoing car wreck, except you are part of it. It literally felt like the house was disintegrating. After about 90 seconds, which felt more like 5 minutes, it subsided. There were still vibrations, creaks, and groans as things settled down. My husband and I first looked for the dog, who was fine, then started looking for damage. Six minutes later another one hit, a 5.6. This one was not as long but felt almost as violent. I ended up clutching the same door frame. By this time, I was literally shaking myself, my hands trembling. I remember my first thought was the high-rise buildings downtown, and how they could not have survived this. I told my husband that there had to be a lot of people dead after this.

The power had gone out immediately in the first jolt, but it was starting to get light outside. We did a quick walk through and were amazed to find that only one ceramic piece had fallen down, unbroken. A couple shelves had fallen down with no damage. My coffee had not even tipped over. A couple days before I had stocked up on batteries and fixed up every flashlight in the house. The next step was to find the little radio we received as a wedding gift 40 years ago. Some cleaning was required, as I had left old batteries in it and they had leaked and corroded inside it. We found one radio station operational, and they were starting to get people calling in with reports. Amazingly our cell phones and land line worked, but internet did not. As we listened to the calls over the course of the next couple hours, we found that our community had been delivered a miracle: There were no major building collapses and no reports of deaths or major injuries. The TV station owned by my husband’s company had been airing the local news at the time from a basement news room. They were able to get back on the air very quickly. The rest of the building, however, suffered major interior damage.

Quick calls to family members proved that everyone was OK, but with minor damage and breakage. My son had just started an annual inventory in a large warehouse with heavily loaded tall shelves. The building itself was damaged, but nothing fell on anyone. Our good friends in Eagle River, much closer to the epicenter, had significant interior damage. Every cupboard and the freezer popped open and the contents vibrated out. Bookshelves fell over, the toilets started leaking, the water heater and fridge moved almost a foot. Every wall has cracked sheetrock. Some doors don’t close properly.

So, back to the lessons learned. My dad was a US Geological Survey geologist who did some of the research on the effects of the 1964 earthquake. I remember walking through some of the most heavily damaged areas and marveling at the earth movement. But Anchorage actually fared well during that quake because it was so far from the epicenter. The majority of damage was from liquefaction of the soils. In areas close to bodies of water, or a prehistoric lake or inlet, the soils are often composed of clays and sands that do not provide a good hard foundation for building on. When you add a little water and a big shake, the ground collapses. Kind of like a Jello mold: stands up fine until you give it a good shake. Anything built on it collapses, often combined with lateral movement as it slides downhill. In areas with hard rocky soils, such as old glacial moraines, you don’t see this happen as often. My dad always said you can make a pretty good guess about the type of soil by looking at the trees. The scrawny “swamp spruce” indicate wet crappy soil. Large birch trees like dry rocky soil. Our house appears to be built on an old moraine, a small ridge of rock. Makes gardening a pain, but great for ground strength. The other thing I learned from him is that anything that can move, will. As the vibrations increase, things tend to “walk”. Hence the moving appliances and cupboards emptying themselves.

What to do to keep yourself and your house safe? Short of living somewhere else? I do have a few suggestions based on my experiences:

  1. Do your research. If you have an older home, find out what kind of building codes and inspections were required when it was built. Most of the buildings with structural damage this time were either old, not subject to our new stricter codes, close to the epicenter, our built on bad soils.
  2. Find out what kind of soils are under your house. The easiest way is to go to the Washington Division of Natural Resources website. Find the tab for Liquefaction Susceptibility Maps and find Kitsap. The map of Bainbridge, once you zoom in, shows areas at high and moderate risk of ground collapse. {Note – here is a link to the map: https://geologyportal.dnr.wa.gov/– check the scale under Geological Mapping and set to 1:24,000, and then under “earthquake data” “Ground Response: Liquefaction Susceptibility”} Another way is to go about 25 feet from your house and dig a hole. If you hit nothing but rocks 2 feet down, you may be good. If your house is on a slope or has lots of terraces, it might indicate that lots of fill was brought in. If the fill was not good quality gravel, you could be at higher risk. If you are in a high-risk area, this means you have to be better prepared than most people. Ground shaking will be magnified, and you have a higher risk of the building settling. It might be a good idea to have an engineer look at it. Adding a drain system to help keep soils around and under your house drier might help too.
  3. Get to know your neighbors. Our friends were out of state but saw the quake on a security camera. They called a neighbor, who checked and discovered a sink leaking. He not only turned it off but replaced the faucet. My son, on the other hand, could not get home for 12 hours. He ended up waiting out the gridlock in a crowded bar. He fortunately did not have any plumbing disasters. He did have appliances move, cracks, and a damaged chimney.
  4. Fasten tall items to the wall with the strongest system you can find. We have all our tall shelves fastened with L shaped metal brackets screwed into the studs. We have a new water heater with tight straps, and it did not move. But remember that everything on the shelves will move. Which brings me to my next point.
  5. Assume that everything sitting on a horizontal surface will wiggle itself off. Put heavy and valuable stuff on bottom shelves. My first act after our big quake was to put any unsecured objects on the floor, since I knew aftershocks were coming. I have magnetic catches on the upper cabinets that house my crystal, china, etc. and they worked great. I had lined these same cabinet shelves with non-skid liner and it worked too. But dishes that are stacked need to have scraps of the stuff between them, or the top ones will decide to leave the bunch.
  6. Use Quake Hold. I should have bought stock in it years ago. It’s a white putty that you pinch and roll into thin strips and stick around the edge of items. Then press and slightly twist back and forth until they are stuck to the shelf. To remove, just twist. Great stuff. I had a large Aladdin lamp full of fuel stuck to our mantel and it did not budge.
  7. Anything hanging on the wall will move. If not hanging securely it will fall. At best, it will swing back and forth and scratch the paint. You can put dabs of Quake Hold or those sticky silicone pads on the lower corners to decrease swinging. Secure hooks have a little slot in them that keep the picture wire from popping out. But everything is only as secure as the nail in the wall: a big one with a big head in a stud, or better yet, a large head screw.
  8. If you have a generator, make sure you have extra fuel. That was one mistake we made, but we figured we could siphon it out of vehicles if we had to.
  9. Stay home! The crazy people who immediately made a run for gas and bottled water and groceries just got in the way of first responders, drove up prices, and endangered themselves. If you are not prepared, then you will have to tough it out or share with your neighbors.
  10. Assume aftershocks will start immediately. And they could be as bad as the first one. The first couple nights I did not get much sleep as they were frequent. Each one brought flashbacks of the main event. I did discover that the shaking was less in our basement. The same reason there is more movement the higher you go in a high rise. So next time I will take my blankie and move down there.
  11. Pets panic and can take off. Just like you, keep them home.
  12. Be prepared for days without power. Have a way to heat water, because nothing is worse than no coffee. You can survive anything else.
  13. Have a mental plan for where you will shelter in each room. The usual rule of jumping under furniture does not make since if it is a flimsy piece. There’s a big difference between an antique oak rolltop and an Ikea desk. If it’s a room with lots of things that could fall on you, get under something or in the doorway. Crouch down and cover your neck. Think about things that could fall onto that room, like a chimney. Sometimes it makes more sense to shelter next to a large object. For example, at night, just roll off the bed and tuck up next to it, taking the pillows with you to cover your head.
  14. If you are in a commercial building or school the risks are entirely different. The larger windows are more apt to break, so get away from them. Suspended ceilings and fluorescent lights will fall down, so get under the biggest thing you can find. Office partitions and file cabinets will fall over. Computer monitors can fly around. In a store, assume every shelf will empty its contents right at you. Of course, the cereal aisle is not as dangerous as the canned goods and bottles. In Anchorage every liquor store was closed for massive cleanup. And when the first one reopened the lines were long.
  15. Remember that everyone will try to leave work at once to go check kids and their houses. Do you really want to be stuck in a traffic jam for hours during the worst aftershocks, even assuming the roads are not damaged? Find a nice bar to wait in. Sit away from the shelves of bottles though.
  16. Assume that all roads and bridges are damaged. Great reason to stay home. Or at work. Assume that teachers, neighbors, and the good people of the island will take care of each other. You do not have to personally check on every one. Listen to the news. Do not tie up phone lines as the system gets overloaded by everyone calling home at once. Text instead as it uses much less bandwidth and keeps things working better for everyone.
  17. Get to know a plumber. Marry one if you have to. They are making a fortune after this quake. Most of the damage, dollar wise, is burst pipes. Know how to turn off the water to your house, or at least at each sink and toilet. Check everywhere for leaks. Sometimes its as simple as replacing the wax ring at the bottom of the toilet. Have your house evaluated by a plumber to be prepared, particularly if you are in a high risk area (see #2). They might be able to update your system with some flexible fittings, securing pipes better, etc. Same goes for gas/propane. Slow leaks sometimes cannot be smelled after a quake. Squirt joints with soapy water and look for bubbles. Turn it off and call a plumber.
  18. Get to know a sheetrocker. Or learn how to do it yourself. Minor cracks are easy to fix, just get yourself a can of the stretchy kind of patch for cracks. But wait a few months for aftershocks to subside. Even bigger cracks with small chunks falling off do not mean structural damage. Look for doors and windows that don’t close right, walls that are not straight, or cracks you can see daylight through. Inspectors will be in high demand, so be prepared to wait. If these things are getting worse after each aftershock, your house may be settling. Time to go crash with the in laws.
  19. Our hospitals reported few injuries, but they were 3 major types: panic attacks, falling on the ice while running out of buildings, and cuts and falls during cleanup. All of which are preventable.
  20. Keep things in perspective. Our community will survive as will most people and their properties. We can clean up the mess. Some people (see above) will make a bunch of money out of this. Have a sense of humor. My son, who works in construction, said the timing of our quake was great. His company will be providing supplies for temporary winter repairs, plus permanent ones to be made next summer. The aftershocks may be exacerbated by all the kids jumping up and down with glee over the school closures. And I saw this as the perfect opportunity to clean out my cabinets, reinforce the shelf supports, and add more non-skid shelf liner. I just needed some incentive to do it.
    Stay safe everyone. Feel free to email me with any questions – Gail Strid