Stories from the November 2018 earthquake
On November 30, 2018, Sonya Senkowsky and Chris Floyd began their Friday morning as usual in their mountainside home in Eagle River. Senkowsky, a writer and communications consultant who had dialed back her career after cancer treatment six years earlier, had just started working for herself from home again. At 8:29 a.m., she was walking down her hallway when a strong jolt hit. Senkowsky braced herself near a doorway, cringing at all the crashing. The power cut out, plunging the house into darkness. Floyd was in another room; they shouted to each other, “You okay? You okay?”
Life in Earthquake Country
When the shaking subsided a half minute later, Senkowsky used her phone as a flashlight to look around. Dishes lay in pieces on the kitchen floor. A china cabinet secured to the dining room wall had opened, but most of its contents remained in place. A large wood and metal halibut sculpture Floyd had designed had crashed face down from its high perch, gouging a dent where it landed. From the top of the floor-to-ceiling stone chimney, a 30-pound rock had jarred loose and tumbled to rest in the middle of the room.
With the electricity out, the house quickly began to cool. Before lighting a fire in the fireplace, Floyd went outside to inspect the chimney, but it had pulled apart, with several concrete blocks dislodged, including one smashed to pieces outside the back door. Conspicuous cracks stair-stepped down the remaining chimney which had visibly separated from the house, admitting cold air. It was the start of a months-long journey with contractors and bureaucrats, amid scores of aftershocks that rattled homes and psyches across southcentral Alaska.
USGS geologist Rob Witter moved to Anchorage in 2010 partly to be near the seismic events he loves to study. Alaska is prime earthquake country, shaken, rattled, and rolled by more quakes than the rest of the United States combined.
Driving to work that November morning, Witter “was in an old Subaru with dubious shocks, on a bumpy, snowy road,” he recalls. Rather than feeling it, his sensation of the earthquake was visual—he saw snow falling from the trees. When snow dropped from swaying power and telephone lines, he realized what was happening. “Once I saw that, I knew it was an earthquake,” Witter says. He’d seen the arrival of two different kinds of seismic waves traveling outward from a ruptured fault at different speeds, first rattling snowy trees, then swaying snowy power lines. Pulling over, Witter rang his USGS colleague, Peter Haeussler. The two spent a long day on their phones and computers, talking with emergency management officials, conferring with colleagues from Fairbanks to California, piecing together what had happened and making plans to learn more.
The verdict: a magnitude 7.1 earthquake (M7.1), located 10 miles north of Anchorage and 27 miles deep, characterized by a strong initial shock, followed by shuddering shakes that rose and fell for 30 seconds or more. It was the strongest shaking in Anchorage since 1964, followed six minutes later by an M5.7 aftershock. Over 80 aftershocks were recorded that day, including three greater than M5.0.
Ross Noffsinger’s office in Building Safety Division headquarters has one chair, beyond reach of his computer. Noffsinger prefers to stand at a tall table with two flat-screen monitors that scroll family scenes of camping, hiking, and skiing when his computer is between tasks.
The day of the quake, Noffsinger was Acting Building Safety officer for Anchorage. “I was here in my office at 8:29 a.m. I stood here and held onto these things,” he says, a hand on each monitor, “because I knew I needed my computer operational.” After the shaking, Noffsinger texted his family. His two daughters at Service High School both answered quickly; they were fine.
Finding only minor issues in his own building, Noffsinger dispatched inspectors to see how the city had fared. “By 11 a.m., we had teams on the street with a list of essential facilities. We focused on critical municipal buildings that first day. The hospitals had engineers on retainer, looking at their facilities. The school district hired private inspectors, plus they had their own maintenance staffs. We quickly figured out that we had fared pretty well. You know, no major collapses. So we were happy about that.”
Of course, less catastrophic problems did abound—pipe breaks, heating and cooling systems, hot water. Over the next few days, a massive effort ensued in the Anchorage area to repair infrastructure and clean up water damage. A link on the city’s website let people ask for damage assessments. More than 3,000 requests came in.
Other infrastructure besides homes and buildings suffered harm. Tom Sulczynski and Bekah Taylor were driving to the Anchorage airport when things went weird. Climbing the northbound off-ramp from Minnesota Drive to International Airport Road, Sulczynski thought he had a flat. Then maybe a broken axle. The car was riding waves up and down when the pavement broke apart. When it was over, Sulczynski’s car rested on an intact block of pavement, well below the surrounding roadway. The couple were unhurt, and the car was towed the next day, but not before photos of the stranded red GMC had gone viral, an icon of the November 30 quake.