Our family’s Alaska earthquake story from Friday, November 30 sounds similar to that of so many others. Got kid out of bed, fed kid, packed lunches, drank coffee, dropped kid at school (argued with said kid, 14, about whether or not he had to say “I love you, too), drove off.
I drove off, like any other day, except very shortly it wasn’t going to be any other day, in any way.
On Fridays my mornings are spent restocking Read On the Fly shelves at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, located about six miles from my son’s school. Usually I park in the main employee lot just east of the main terminal, but this Friday I traveled to the north lot, adjacent to the international arrivals terminal. It’s a longer walk, almost a mile, but on cold mornings I often take this route. It wasn’t particularly cold by Alaska standards Friday the 30th, and my memory is a bit unclear about why I decided to ease my car into the lot’s space.
With the holiday travel season (and a weekend) in full swing, most of my thoughts were toward making sure the six Read On the Fly bookshelves were fully stocked with books and informational postcards – and that they were clean – before the impending influx of Christmas vacationers.
I reached the office, tossed aside my coat, took a sip of coffee, and walked about 100 feet to a shelf located in the regional section of the Anchorage airport. On the first floor, this terminal also sits near baggage claim and arrivals traffic. it’s a space constantly buzzing with people, many from Alaska’s rural areas, who must utilize aircraft to come and go for everything from medical appointments to sports competitions. It’s also my favorite place in the airport to smile at elders, pass out books to tiny children, and chat with airport workers; all of whom know Alaska and its fickle physical nature.
When the floor began to shake a bit before 8:30 a.m., none of us paid much notice. Earthquakes are as common as snow showers in Alaska, so for a second or two, we stared at each other, fully expecting to follow that with the requisite “Whoa, pretty good shaker, there” comment.
Then the shake became a shudder, then a jolt, then a tumultuous series of jerks that threw kids off their feet and caused more than a few adults to reach for anything bolted down. I remember looking over at the bank of windows bordering the pick-up area, and watching the panes of glass wave and shudder, back and forth, and marveling at the smoothness of the ripples in contrast to the violent hammering happening in every other corner of my vision. Funny how we put some things in strange perspective.
Lights went out, alarms went off with a brusque automatic demand to “Evacuate the airport – there has been an emergency!” repeating every five or six seconds. Water streamed from the ceilings, and dust drifted down to cover me, the shelves, and the frightened people rushing for an exit.
I’ve been fearful many, many times during my 12 years in Alaska; some scenarios here are simply like that, living and working among a landscape and its wild things that are not always predictable. An adrenaline rush, trust in the people I am with (and in my own skill set), and then it’s over and something to talk about over wine that evening.
This was different. This was uncontrollable terror. And it wasn’t going away.
Once the airport was stabilized and cleared for re-entry, I shored up a few things in the Read On the Fly office, grabbed some candy and water (I didn’t know how long it would take to reach my son, still at school, or how long it would take to reach home) and ran back to my car, avoiding the long floor-to-ceiling windows bordering the entire route to the north terminal. My feet slipped and slid on ice as I kept one eye on my phone and one on the ground, alternatively picking up calls from my husband (in Denver) and our son, who said he was fine and safe with a friend.
Aftershock followed aftershock, compounding efforts to try and calm myself. Smoke billowed in the distance. A sinkhole and upheaved section of a bike trail caught my attention; an hour earlier those weren’t there. Radio reports were spotty; some stations were knocked completely off the air. Ironically, the pop music channel favored by my son was one of the only stations up and running and the young DJs did an admirable (downright heroic, if you must know) job of relaying information without knowing about their own families’ status.
It took me 90 minutes to travel 6 miles, find my kid and put my arms around his lanky frame. We went home. We put on our boots and comforted our dogs, who were, thankfully, crated during the whole ordeal, and began to clean up.
Healing will take a long time. While structurally on its way back already, Anchorage area residents have experienced more than 1,800 aftershocks since the initial earthquake occurred, many of magnitude 4.0 or greater. We are mentally and emotionally exhausted, and many of us woke up (ha, who am I kidding, we never went to sleep) Saturday morning with aching bodies, as if we’d run a marathon.
What didn’t the Alaska earthquake do? Shut us down. The Alaska Department of Transportation, Alaska Railroad, Anchorage School District, and Port of Anchorage are heroes of infrastructure. The Emergency Management Service (EMS) teams were everywhere. But most of all, everyday Alaskans were, too. We supported the needs of each other, handled the small emergencies, passed out food and clothing and hugs without thinking. Those of us with children not in school after a mandatory weeklong closure of all Anchorage institutions are hosting sleepovers, playdates, and actual day camps. We’re getting outside anyway, shaking Earth be damned, living daily lives the way Outside perceptions believe us to. #realalaskans
Should you visit Anchorage and the surrounding area right now? Of course. There may be adjustments to schedules, detours in roads, or fewer options for tour sites, but Alaska’s largest city is open. We’re looking out for each other, and we’ll look out for you, too.
That said, here are a few stories (past and present) with important information to help anyone currently in Alaska or planning to come to Alaska in the near future. Travel smart, friends. Remember what matters.
Outside time is important for healing after the Alaska Earthquake: Anchorage Daily News