How to Fix an Earthquake in Four Days
Cooperation is crucial for disaster recovery
Road work takes place on Vine Road on December 5 to repair earthquake damage.
At 8:30 a.m. on November 30, Alaskans were shaken by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit about eight miles north of Anchorage. The quake shook buildings, rattled road systems, and even prompted a tsunami warning that was later canceled. While Anchorage was most severely impacted by the damage, the earthquake was felt throughout the Interior up to Fairbanks.
Just minutes after the earth stopped rumbling, photos and videos started circulating on social media depicting the damage in and around Anchorage. There were videos of children hiding under their desks inside schools and photos illustrating massive cracks that formed in roadways around the state’s largest city. What shocked the world, though, was how quickly life seemed to return to normal. Days after the earthquake, more photos started making the rounds, now showing side-by-side comparisons between impacted infrastructure and roads and repairs already made.
How did things improve so quickly?
Natural disasters can’t be predicted. In fact, it is in part the spontaneity of earthquakes that can make them so deadly. Nobody knows when they are coming, where they will be, or how much damage they will inflict. But that doesn’t mean state officials haven’t been preparing for a major emergency incident to occur. In 2014, Alaska celebrated the 50th anniversary of a massive earthquake that struck about 15 miles below Prince William Sound between Anchorage and Valdez. That quake—widely known as the Good Friday Earthquake—had a 9.2 magnitude, which still ranks as the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded. The anniversary of the 1964 earthquake got state officials thinking about what they would do should another natural disaster strike the 49th state.
“We had actually been planning for an incident like this for quite some time,” says Shannon McCarthy, administrations operations manager for the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF), alluding to the recent earthquake in Anchorage. “Four years ago, there was a big anniversary for the 1964 earthquake, so the state emergency management had really done a push to get people prepared and for the department to be prepared. In March 2018, we had an oversized truck hit one of our bridges that crosses the Glenn Highway, and we had to shut down the highway for, I think, four and a half days. That reminded us to take a look at some of our planning.”
After the truck crash, DOT&PF began conducting exercises in which they discussed different modes of recovery should another large scale emergency event take place.
“We’d talk about, ‘If this piece of infrastructure was compromised, how would we get traffic back and forth?’” McCarthy explains.
As a part of the preparation process, DOT&PF made sure all of its staff renewed their incident command training. Incident command training was initiated years ago when firefighters developed the program because they’d have emergency situations that required various resources chipping in to help with recovery. What they discovered was that firefighters were communicating differently than police officers, and both of them were speaking a different language than the military. It became clear that there needed to be a universal language for agencies to use during natural disasters and other emergencies that require responses from multiple entities.
The anniversary of the 1964 earthquake and the 2018 truck accident were reminders for DOT&PF to make sure everybody was up to date with their incident command training. So, when the earthquake hit at the end of November, agencies around the state were equipped to issue a fast response.
A bird’s eye view of Vine Road following the November 30 earthquake.
“We had actually been planning for an incident like this for quite some time… In March 2018, we had an oversized truck hit one of our bridges that crosses the Glenn Highway, and we had to shut down the highway for four-and-a-half days. That reminded us to take a look at some of our planning.”
For many people, earthquakes and natural disasters trigger the same response. People rush to make sure their families are safe and their homes are still standing. Immediately after the quake, the majority of DOT&PF workers in Anchorage left to check in on their families and homes before quickly returning to the office to begin working. McCarthy, meanwhile, was walking into Anchorage’s maintenance station. Because the Anchorage DOT&PF office was evacuated due to overwhelming dust caused by ceiling tiles falling in, she stayed in place at the maintenance station for several hours. Ironically, it was an ideal place for her to be during the earthquake, as her placement in the city allowed her to get started on what needed to be done to start restoring order around the area.
“When I was over there, it was all hands on deck,” McCarthy says of the initial reaction. “They called every operator and said, ‘As soon as you know your family and house are safe, we need you in here.’”
DOT&PF has operators who are trained to inspect roads and others who are trained to inspect bridges. McCarthy says that within minutes of the earthquake hitting, those operators were out on the road taking inventory and pictures. Back at the DOT&PF office, however, workers weren’t able to return inside the building until they were given the green light that the dust was no longer a cause for concern. DOT&PF employees were allowed back into the office just after 11 a.m. on the day of the earthquake.
“Once the dust had literally settled, our private sector contractors immediately started calling in and saying, ‘What can we do to help?’” says McCarthy. “We had already anticipated those questions and started asking questions: ‘What equipment do you have available right now? How many people do you have that you can call in, and how quickly can you get to point X?’ We knew where the cracks were in the road system and what contractors were available to go. We literally had a contractor on scene by 11 a.m. that morning, on the Minnesota on-ramp, the one that was made famous by some of the photos that came out.”
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In addition to the Minnesota Drive exit ramp, there was even more damage on the new Seward Highway. There were also two sinkholes that developed on the Glenn Highway near the Mirror Lake area, a bridge abutment that buckled on the Glenn, and rocks falling near the Potter Weigh Station, which turned into a dicey situation as aftershocks continued throughout the day. Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport also shut down the ramp that serves as the primary entrance and exit for people coming to and going from the airport.
But the earthquake’s presence wasn’t solely felt on the road systems; it also struck infrastructure. Among the people who were called to inspect buildings was Forest Bishop, an engineer in training for Schneider and Associates Structural Engineers in Anchorage.
“What I’ve noticed, in general terms, is a lot of the older structures experienced a lot more significant damage than the newer structures,” Bishop says. “That’s primarily because the newer structures are built to significantly higher seismic code requirements. The biggest issue that people are facing is the differential settlements of the foundations that exhibit pronounced damage in the structural framework of the buildings throughout. When the foundation sinks differentially, it stresses and strains all the members throughout the building in a way that they aren’t designed to handle, especially in the older structures. Therefore, it either damages those or puts them in a position where they’re not safe anymore. That’s the main exhibitor I’ve seen—the poor soils and foundation designs causing extrapolated damage up through the structures.”
Bishop estimates that he has personally completed more than fifty inspections and has racked up more than 300 hours of overtime since the earthquake. Fortunately, he says, the majority of the inspections he has participated in have required very little repairs, though there have been instances that led to him recommending a couple small repairs be made.
The areas impacted by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Anchorage on November 30.
One of the first major decisions DOT&PF was forced to make was whether to apply asphalt or gravel to the roads that were in desperate need of repairs. DOT&PF was hesitant to choose gravel because that would have required its operators to constantly maintain and re-grade them. DOT&PF’s private sector partners, including Agg Pro, immediately started their asphalt plants, which proved to be a game-changer in the recovery process.
“It’s hard to do asphalt in the wintertime,” McCarthy says. “Normally, an asphalt plant takes, on the short side, anywhere from seven days to ten or fourteen days to get it up and running. You have to melt the asphalt oil, and that takes a while, and then you have to make sure the actual material is clear of ice and snow.”
Within days, DOT&PF had asphalt at its disposal. But there were still various cracks and gashes throughout the roadways that required a team effort between DOT&PF and its private sector operators to fill. DOT&PF had between thirty and fifty workers working around the clock for a period of four or five days. Other operators, such as Mass Excavation, sprang into action and helped transport gravel to the areas that needed it the most.
“When we were hauling gravel from our pit facility, the maximum trucks that we could put in there were seventeen because that’s as fast as we could load them,” says Mark Erickson, general manager of Mass Excavation, which hauled an average of 400 to 600 yards of gravel per hour during the peak response time. “That production of 400 to 600 yards an hour is amazing production by most standards. We were building the road all the way back up, basically filling in hole after hole.”
Mass Excavation also played a critical role in hauling the saturated soils that gave way, particularly around Mirror Lake and on Dowling Road. Although he wasn’t making repairs during the 1964 earthquake, Erickson says the similarities between that legendary disaster and the one Anchorage experienced in November were striking.
“It’s the same thing that devastated Anchorage back in 1964,” he says. “You have to have the appropriate soils and water situations, but liquefaction turns the underlying soils into quicksand and won’t support anything. Then the world falls into it. It’s not very often that you get to see the actual liquefaction and the damage it does. It’s really pretty impressive when you get to see the force of nature and how the world can just fall away.”
McCarthy says DOT&PF was taken aback to see how quickly the roads returned to being functional, something she notes wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the department’s preexisting relationships with partners who were eager to jump in and help out at a moment’s notice.
“We were pleasantly surprised by how quickly we all worked together to get the road system together,” she says. “I don’t think we could’ve done that if we didn’t have good, cooperative relationships with the private sector going into this.”
An aerial view of Vine Road on December 8, showing work completed to repair damage from the November 30 quake.
Although Anchorage and the surrounding region are much improved from the earthquake’s damage, there’s still more work to be done. A complete reevaluation will have to be conducted this summer, and Anchorage-based DOT&PF workers are encouraging locals to be prepared for even more construction down the line.
“For the general public, things probably started feeling normal on a lot of the roads in that first week after the earthquake,” says Sean Baski, an Anchorage-based design project manager for DOT&PF. “Those roads are paved now, so it might feel like everything is done. It’s not. When you have frozen ground, it holds a lot of things together. You’ve got asphalt and other things that are nice and solid structures, but when something destabilizes underneath it, that asphalt and that frozen layer help bridge over failures. Come this spring, when everything starts thawing out and that big frozen layer isn’t bridging over things, it’s not going to be pretty. Things could start falling apart again. We’re preparing ourselves right now so we can respond to it, but there’s a huge unknown factor for us because we’re not sure what we’re going to have to respond to.”
There is more work to be done, but those who helped with the earthquake relief are also proud as they reflect on all they’ve already accomplished.
“We definitely made a mark on the rest of the nation,” Erickson says. “That’s what I think is really great. It was an overall collective group that came together to demonstrate to the rest of the country that in Alaska, when these things happen, we basically just make sure everything is safe at home and then we get back to work putting the world back together. It took a lot of contractors and engineers and the DOT&PF and the MOA to show what we can do. It was a pretty cool collaboration, and that’s the Alaskan way.”