Nation & World

'Major' damage after magnitude-7 earthquake in Alaska

A stranded vehicle lies on a collapsed roadway near the airport after an earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska, U.S. November 30, 2018.  REUTERS/Nathaniel Wilder
A stranded vehicle lies on a collapsed roadway near the airport after an earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska, U.S. November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Nathaniel Wilder

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — An intense earthquake struck the Anchorage area Friday morning, causing severe shaking and damage and triggering fears of a tsunami.

The magnitude-7 quake occurred at 8:29 a.m., local time, the epicenter just north of Anchorage, which is home to more than 294,000 people. Moments later, the National Weather Service issued a tsunami warning for Cook Inlet and the southern Kenai Peninsula. The warning was canceled shortly after 10 a.m.

The extent of the damage was not immediately clear. Local and state officials said they were assessing the impact, which the police department said included “major infrastructure damage across Anchorage.”

Anchorage Fire Chief Jodie Hettrick said at a briefing that 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, but a spokeswoman said this process would take time given the impact across the state.

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.

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Similar scenes were playing out across Anchorage. Police officers were dispatched across the region to handle “multiple situations,” the department said, although it did not elaborate beyond saying it was working with the school district to check on children there.

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. Photos showed major damage to roads around Anchorage, with buckled and broken asphalt. A damaged 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 FAA 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 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.

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After the quake, Alaska state troopers were “responding to calls for service and unconfirmed reports of damage,” said Jonathon Taylor, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Public Safety.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin tweeted that while her “family is intact,” their “house is not.”

The Anchorage School District did not report damage to its buildings but said that parents could pick up children “when they feel it is safe to do so.”

Linton Thompson, the principal of Sand Lake School, was at a training with 50 other elementary school principals at Wayland Baptist Church when the earthquake began. He and many others ran outside, while others sheltered under desks in the conference room where the training was being held. When the shaking stopped, “every principal in that building went 100 different ways,” Thompson said.

The earthquake hit as students across Anchorage were on their way to school, about 30 minutes before classes would start.

The University of Alaska Anchorage closed its campus on Friday after the earthquake, urging all non-essential 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.

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.

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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 slowly moving northwest and subducting underneath Alaska. The epicenter of the earthquake was not located at the interface between the two plates, which would have been more likely to generate a tsunami.

The National Tsunami Warning Center often issues advisories immediately following an earthquake on a high-risk fault line, such as the one underneath Anchorage. The center then revises the warnings based on measurements and location.

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 American history. It destroyed a major part of downtown Anchorage and caused a tsunami that ravaged towns on the Gulf of Alaska and beyond, including fatalities as far south as California.

There have been several aftershocks to the initial earthquake, according to the USGS, including a 5.8-magnitude in the city of Anchorage.

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