By Rachael Kvapil
Dozens gathered to celebrate John MacKinnon’s tenure with AGC, noshing on an array of delicious foods and toasting him with his favorite cocktail, a dirty martini. Photo courtesy AGC
Matt Tanaka, project manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, or DOT&PF, knows a big earthquake when he feels it. In 1964, Tanaka experienced the magnitude 9.2 Good Friday earthquake at age 5. And while the earthquake on Nov. 30, 2018 was only magnitude 7.1, he described it as “a very violent shake.”
Many Southcentral Alaskans were already at work when the earthquake struck at 8:29 a.m., resulting in varying degrees of damage to structures and roads. However, officials barely had time to gather their thoughts and evacuate buildings when a magnitude 5.7 aftershock hit 6 minutes later, centered 2.5 miles north-northwest of the municipality. Not long after, as unofficial damage reports swarmed social media from drivers on the roads and individuals in their offices, DOT&PF knew the situation called for immediate action.
Within four days of the Nov. 30 earthquake, contracting crews completed temporary repairs to the road despite challenges with cold weather and a number of intense aftershocks.
The ability to accomplish such a fast turnaround went viral on social media and television in the Lower 48. Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities
Everyone who contributed to this article said their post-earthquake story started the same. Their priority was to check on their families and, in some instances, their homes. DOT&PF staff who were able to immediately set up respective command centers, one for surface transportation and another for public facilities, did so. Inspections and repairs began despite aftershocks and cold weather, with the entire population of Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley trying to soldier on.
Shannon McCarthy, administrative operations manager for DOT&PF, said the state has been promoting emergency preparedness since the 50th anniversary of the Good Friday earthquake in 2014. McCarthy and several colleagues have participated in The Great Alaska ShakeOut, a program that teaches earthquake preparedness, as part of developing their emergency preparedness protocol and had a chance to test their plan in March 2018, when a truck hit the South Eagle River overpass.
“We learned a lot from that incident,” McCarthy said. “The bridge was significantly damaged in that incident, and we realized that safely removing debris required us to close down traffic for longer than we anticipated. This led us to revise our plan based on what we had learned.”
McCarthy was at the DOT&PF’s Anchorage maintenance station during the earthquake and had to make her way to the department’s main office to assist setup of an incident command center in a conference room. It took 14 minutes for McCarthy to get the first post onto the department’s Facebook webpage.
“Social media played an important part in providing people with accurate information. It reached a lot of people during a time when the phone lines were overwhelmed or in some places not working at all.”
An hour had barely passed before DOT&PF was on the phone with contractors. Several had contacted the department after hearing initial damage reports; others were contacted as the maintenance force identified major locations in need of immediate attention. Contractors were assigned to locations based on staffing capabilities, equipment and expertise. At this point, contractors and their crews had no idea if they were going to get paid for their work. They only knew that they had to get Southcentral Alaska moving again.
Dan Hall, president of Knik Construction, reached out to DOT&PF even though his company had already shut down operations for the year. Within two hours, he was on site with equipment to assist with temporary repairs to the Minnesota Drive offramp, as well as a section of the slope on 100th Avenue.
“It’s pretty impressive how DOT worked with the contractors to minimize the impact on the community,” Hall said. “It speaks highly of our resiliency and ability to overcome challenges together.”
And the challenges were many, said Glenn Ball, vice president of American Landscaping, who said the company was called in later to assist with stabilization projects in four major areas.
“At these temperatures, there is really only one type of hydroseed we could use,” Ball said.
“Even then it was difficult to keep it warm, making it a much more complicated process. But the response times were fabulous, and everyone had a get-it-done attitude that worked in our favor.”
The four-day turnaround of temporary road repairs resulted in nationwide media attention. The quick response by DOT&PF and contractors, along with a disaster declaration from then-Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, allowed for the regular lengthy procurement process to be suspended for emergency repairs.
By the time Tanaka returned from checking on his family, the nucleus of his team was setting up an incident command center, also in a nearby conference room. Like the surface transportation team, facility services had a protocol in place. The nationally recognized procedure of ACT20 guided teams of professional architects and structural engineers to conduct Level 1 and Level 2 evaluations of public buildings. Under this protocol, the teams assessed the structural integrity of a public building and posted placards at entrances designated as green (safe to occupy), yellow (access restricted) or red (access prohibited).
While public facilities assembled inspection teams, the maintenance and operations staff of each state agency conducted rapid evaluations of their buildings to identify damage to mechanical, electrical and architectural systems. They also made note of any apparent structural defects for subsequent evaluation by engineers.
Tanaka said the teams were formed from three sources: local architect and engineering firms, local volunteers from professional organizations, and several architects and engineers from the Lower 48. Amy Mestas, PE, a senior associate with PDC Engineers and board member of the Structural Engineers Association of Alaska, said many of their private clients had already started contacting them for structural assessments when they were contacted by DOT&PF.
“Things moved quickly because people were willing to jump in and work together,” Mestas said.
Roy Rountree, president of Bettisworth North, agreed. “A lot of people spent time away from their families so that we could complete these inspections. It also helped that we didn’t sit around wondering who was going to pay for this or how to orchestrate the process. Team members who could be available came forward quickly, following the steps outlined in ACT20.”
Inspection teams started work on the day of the earthquake and ended 12 days later. Teams inspected 369 public facilities in the Mat-Su Borough and Municipality of Anchorage. The teams also inspected some public buildings in the cities of Kenai and Soldotna, at the request of the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Of the 369 buildings assessed, 13 were designated as yellow. None was designated red.
The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities worked with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and private contractors to complete temporary repairs to Vine Road,
which ranked as one of the most affected roads following the earthquake. Photo courtesy Matanuska-Susitna Borough
The Division of Facility Services Annex Building experienced the most damage. A major part of it settled, cracked and deformed because its foundation soils liquefied during the earthquake. The Division of Facility Services will soon determine whether the damaged part of the building can be repaired, although it will probably need to be demolished and rebuilt. In the meantime, the Division of Facility Services has isolated a few damaged offices in the building, relocated the occupants temporarily to another state office and made minor repairs to keep the building in use.
Other facilities that were hit hard included the Boney Courthouse and the DOT&PF’s Aviation Headquarters Building. Temporary repairs were completed by Division of Facility Services’ maintenance and operations staff within four days.
Even smaller cracks like the ones near East Third Avenue and Post Road required immediate attention to prevent further
ground damage in the downtown area.Photo courtesy Matanuska-Susitna Borough
Now that the immediate crisis is over, McCarthy said it is time for the department to tweak the surface transportation emergency protocols. And while the public facilities team thinks ACT20 is already tested, Rountree said he would like to see more professionals acquire certification long before the next natural disaster.
Rachael Kvapil is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks.