by Senator Lisa Murkowski
Senator Sullivan and I just returned to Washington after an almost surreal 24-hour period up in the state. We went up on Sunday night, Monday morning. We hadn’t anticipated being up there but the state of Alaska, more specifically Southcentral Alaska experienced a powerful earthquake on Friday.
It was a, an unsettling event certainly, a frightening event to many, and it caused significant damage in the most populated part of our state. So it was last Friday morning at 8:29 in the morning when we had a magnitude 7.0 on the Richter scale, an earthquake that struck the community of Anchorage. The epicenter was about seven miles north of Anchorage. It was deep, about 25 miles deep. That shock hit. It lasted anywhere, folks were saying from about 40 seconds to a minute was the initial hard jolt, and then movement after that depended on where you were and what kind of ground you were located on, but it was a very, it was a very significant earthquake by all standards.
I heard about the earthquake not because I got some alert on my phone, but because my phone rang when my son called who lives and works in Anchorage. He had been at his shop, and he called me right after the shaking stopped. My son is a pretty calm young man, but I could tell that something, something was wrong, something was different. I could hear it in his voice. He was clearly rattled. His comments to me reflected so many of the comments that I heard from so many that I have had a chance to visit with.
As we were speaking on the phone, it was about seven minutes after that initial jolt that we had another earthquake, a 5.7 following that, and he literally said, ‘you’ve got to hold on, mom, because we’re having another one.’ These are significant at any time, but to have a 7. 0 followed by a 5.7 and then to know that these aftershocks have been continuing, continuing up until today.
As of this morning, we have had — well actually, as of this afternoon the total number of aftershocks that we have had is about 2,500. So think about that from Friday morning to just midafternoon in Alaska Time, about 2,500 aftershocks. The number that were above 4. 5 in magnitude, we’ve had 14 in that time period that were over 4.5. A 4.5 is going to get anybody’s attention.
Yesterday morning when I was leaving Alaska to come to Washington, I’m getting ready, in the bathroom, and there’s another shaker then, and that was a 4.8.
So as people have asked me how are things back home, I said, ‘well, we had the big jolt on Friday, but it is still rocking and rolling, and people are anxious.’ But the report that I’d like to share with folks today is that it has been an incredible response at so many different levels. But the initial response was pretty intense.
After I spoke with my son, I talked with a staff member whose pipes had burst in her home, and she was dealing with flooding. One of the main arterials in Anchorage, Minnesota Drive, is the, one of the access roads to get to the airport. Parts of that had collapsed. Many people have seen the picture of the vehicle that is sitting in the middle of this depressed area where the bottom literally has dropped out of that, of that that overpass of that road.
Across Anchorage and in the Mat-Su Valley, school had just started for the middle schools and the upper grades, and the kids were doing what the kids have been trained to do for decades now. Since the 1964 earthquake, believe me, every kid in Southcentral Alaska, I think probably every kid in Alaska knows what the earthquake drill is, to duck and cover. But during this quake, they were ducking and covering as books from the bookshelves were crashing to the floor, as ceiling tiles were coming down. It’s extraordinary to think that during all that we saw, all the damage in the schools that there were two injuries.
There’s 48,000 kids in the Anchorage School District, about 17,000 or 18,000 in the Mat-Su District. Two injuries. One was cleaning up glass. Another was a student who was putting his arm up to shield himself from a ceiling tile that was falling down, and he injured his wrist. But it is absolutely extraordinary, nothing short of a miracle that we suffered no loss of life.
But it was pretty dramatic. Transformers blew. Much of the city went dark. A tsunami warning was issued for the Kenai Peninsula in the low-lying areas of Anchorage bowl, even down past Kodiak. We got a call from friends that were in Kodiak that were out on a hunting trip, and they got word that they needed to hike to higher ground. Hike to higher ground, of course there’s no communication, no way to know whether it’s all safe.
These stories are coming in from all over the state. But what we heard in those first hours, the first reports coming in from our first responders who just truly jumped into action and were responding to calls as they were coming in, the civil engineers were dispatched to go out to check on the highways, the bridges, the essential infrastructure like the hospitals.
We had almost immediate updates from the U. S. Geologic Survey and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about the earthquake, what was happening with the subsequent tsunami warning, the aftershocks. All of these, all of these were just in real time. And we kept waiting to hear whether there were any reports of serious injuries or fatalities. But fortunately, amazingly, miraculously they never came.
And meanwhile, the utilities were working to restore power and to test the city’s water systems. Enstar, our natural gas supplier, received over 2,700 requests to check on broken gas lines. They went house by house to make sure that they were safe. It was extraordinary in terms of the immediate on-the-ground response by the Alaskans that were there in place, the teams that are at the ready because that’s what they’re trained to do, but then those who were just being good neighbors and knowing that when you have something hit, we are all hands on deck.
Congressman Young, Senator Sullivan, and I gathered on Friday afternoon. We got updates from the Vice President, who was traveling. We spoke with the FEMA administrator, Brock Long, Secretary of Transportation Chao. All of them were all in on their promises to help throughout the federal government with resources. President Trump also, his support in promising to spare no expense as we work to recover from this natural disaster went a long way to just providing levels of assurance there.
So Senator Sullivan and I, as I mentioned, flew up on Sunday evening. We waited until the weekend was over to fly back home. We didn’t want to get in the way of the immediate recovery efforts and I got in at 1:00 o’clock in the morning and went to work cleaning up the glass and the broken things in my house as many of my neighbors had been doing all weekend long.
Over the course of the day on Monday we were able to see some of the damage that this earthquake has caused. And you think about the words when you’re trying to describe something that the scenes are just so, so difficult, and it’s words like gut wrenching and astounding and then remarkable. But it was, it was really gut wrenching being in the school.
We went out to Houston Middle School. This is an area out in the Mat-Su Valley. This is one of the schools that will not be opened, at least not this year, and perhaps longer. But it was — you’re standing in a building — this is the library there in the middle school, and you see all of the books that have fallen to the floor. You see the guts of the ceiling that have some out, the sprinkler system has activated. Not only do you have the chaos of the books, but you have the saturation. There’s another picture of the group of us that went in, but the picture here of the group of us that went in here, but the ceiling is disintegrating on top of the library there.
And when you think about the time that this all happened. You had students in the library. You had constants that were, students that were passing in the hallway. This is cinder block construction in the school and the actual concrete cinders popping out, crashing to the floor, and breaking. The metal struts coming out of the ceiling, the panels. This is all happening at 8:29 in the morning.
It’s dark in Alaska at 8:29 in the morning. The lights have now gone out and you have this crashing all around you. And when I use the word remarkable to describe some of it, it’s remarkable about how the students responded, how the teachers responded, the calm. The kids knew what to do. They got under their desks. They did what they were trained to do. And then when they got the order that they needed to get out to evacuate, what they did was exactly what they were trained to do and no injury — no injury. It’s absolutely extraordinary.
So the schools in Anchorage are going to be closed for the entire week. The Mat-Su is opening some of theirs this week, but more than 85 of them sustained damage that, clearly — that clearly needs to be cleaned up, needs to be repaired.
The schools were one aspect of the damage that we saw, but what many have seen through the views out there have been the damage to the infrastructure. This is a picture of a collapsed road. This is out in Vine Road, again, out in the Mat-Su Valley. This is kind of a boggy area that runs through here, but it was as if a big suction came in and literally sucked the ground from underneath that. This is an area that we visited. We took this picture here from above in the air. This is it up close, but as you’re standing here on these slabs of asphalt, the crevasses are extraordinary and you realize the intensity of the action of the earth.
So you see scenes like this and you say, you know, how are we going to get through all of this? And the work that is ongoing now, whether it is the onramps, whether it’s the bridges, whether it’s the roads like this on Vine Road, our Department of Transportation is working to firm up the roads to, believe it or not, fill it in, repave them, even restripe them and get folks back on their way. It is absolutely extraordinarily impressive what we have seen in those 72, 78 hours.
The Alaska Railroad is in a situation where they are assessing their damage. They are operational. They are going to be going much slower than they would like. That is going to be causing complications, but they are up. The Port of Alaska is undergoing an expansion. It has been complicated by this earthquake, but that is something, again, very critical to how goods move around our state, 85 percent of them come through that port so being able to allow for functionality is critical. So we look at our assets, we look at the Trans Alaska Pipeline, that was closed down temporarily just for precaution, but it is up and running.
And when I think about all of this, given what happened, the visible damage that we saw earlier this week, I find myself thinking that we’re just so lucky. Not that we were hit by this major earthquake, but that it could have been so much worse. We talk a lot about resilience, resilience of a people.
I think we learned a lot from the 1964 earthquake, the Good Friday Earthquake. That registered at 9.2 on the Richter scale. It lasted four and a half, almost five minutes, extraordinary. We are seismically the largest state in the country and so we work to be prepared. Again, I mentioned last Friday’s earthquake was deep and that mitigated some of the shaking that was associated with it, but the proximity to our state’s population center put people and infrastructure at great risk. But the depth of the source and the mechanism of the fault helped reduce the damage.
But that’s one part of it. The other part of it is being prepared, and this is where I’m just so proud of, defend, the resilience of Alaskans. Whether it’s at the schools where they practice the earthquake drills where the students get under the desk, hold on to the chair of a desk, they cover their heads.
We have one Alaskan who is a Page, she has gone through this drill. I know she has. Even through it all, through the crashing, students knew what to do. They did it not only for themselves but they did it for other students as well. And there are some stories of some real young heroes out there, and I have a young nephew who not only took care of himself but made sure that a fellow student who had severe mobility issues was able to get under a desk. And I just think about the calmness and the presence that so many exercised.
I’m going to end by just noting, again, how we have worked as communities in our state to be prepared for disasters when they should come. We have some of the most stringent building codes in the world, and for the most part, our buildings held up. Families have earthquake kits in their houses. They’ve got batteries, they have flashlights, they have nonperishable food—all of which came in handy as folks hunkered down over the weekend.
I end my remarks by noting just how grateful I am for the first responders who took action in the aftermath of the earthquake, even amid of the ongoing aftershocks, even with their households totally turned upside down. Not only for our first responders, but all of those who acted as first responders. The neighbors that came together, it is Alaska at its finest when we all work together.
I’m very grateful that we had no tsunami. I’m very grateful that the damages, at least on the surface, are not worse. And we’re certainly grateful that there — certainly thankful that there were no reports of serious injuries. We have partners that are committed to help us in any way they can and I appreciate the reach out from so many colleagues in the Senate who sent me texts and called and said, ‘Is everything okay in Alaska? Is there anything we can do?’ Thank you for that.
We know we’re tough in Alaska. That’s a reputation that we have. We’re kind of proud of that. We know we’re hardy and resilient, but knowing that others are going to be with us as we go through this recovery period makes that much better.
So I thank you, Mr. President, and I thank so many who have been there to help Alaska. And with that, I yield the floor and would suggest the absence of a quorum.
One week ago today (Dec. 5th, 2018), a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck a few miles north of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, causing severe damage to infrastructure, roads, schools, businesses, and homes. Within days, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was on the ground in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley to assess the damage and to meet with emergency responders to help determine the federal response. Last week, Senator Murkowski spoke on the Senate floor after returning from her Alaska trip to recount some of the visible damage of the earthquake and to share efforts underway to rebuild. This is her speech.