Last week, as part of his “Alaskan of the Week” series, U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) recognized all Alaskans for their remarkable response to the November 30, 2018 earthquake the shook Southcentral Alaska.
Mr. President, it is Thursday afternoon, and it is the time of the week when I usually come down to talk about one of my constituents or some Alaskan who is doing a great thing for their community or the State or the country. I call that our Alaskan of the Week. I am going to suspend that this week because, to be perfectly honest, I think every one of my fellow Alaskans deserves a shout-out. Maybe they are all Alaskans of the Week this week for what happened and, then, their reaction to what happened in Alaska last Friday. The country read about it, but it is the earthquake–the very significant earthquake–that my State and my hometown of Anchorage just went through.
Mr. President, as you know, last Friday morning, at 8:29 a.m., the citizens of Southcentral Alaska, which includes Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley, were doing what they always do on a Friday morning. People were in their offices, driving to work, drinking coffee at home, or maybe taking a run on many of the paved trails throughout our wonderful city. Students were either in school or almost getting to school, sitting at their desks with pencils and pens in hand, and then the shaking began. It felt like it went on forever.
I was here in DC. My wife was at our home in Anchorage. She sent me a text and said: We are having a big, massive earthquake. And we did. It was 7.0 on the Richter scale, which is a big earthquake–a big earthquake even for Alaska. Moments later, another earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale hit. The epicenter was very close to downtown Anchorage, about 7 miles north.
People all across the area ran out of their houses, their offices, and dove under their desks. Roads collapsed, pipes broke, and ceiling tiles came crashing down. Household goods cracked. Kitchens all across the State looked like they had been invaded by violent giants. Thousands of people lost power, including my home in Anchorage.
Senator Murkowski and I and Congressman Young were here in DC. I am going to talk about that a minute. We went home soon after to see what happened, to see the damage.
You saw the previous slide there. Senator Murkowski and I were out reviewing and assessing some of the damage. This is a photo of an on-ramp to Minnesota Avenue, actually leading to the airport. That collapsed completely. That is how people get to the airport.
Vine Road in the Mat-Su Valley, a major thoroughfare there, completely, essentially, imploded. Houses and businesses were shook dramatically. There is another picture of Vine Road there. That is the road that you just saw. It was rush hour in Alaska.
Unfortunately, we are having a lot of problems with homes and businesses. This is a photo of just one of the hundreds of businesses, ceilings collapsing, entire offices ruined, and schools. The schools throughout the State suffered a lot of damage. In libraries, there were not just shelves collapsing. Books fly off the shelves when you have a 7.0 earthquake. There is another photo of some of the schools with ceilings collapsing and rebar coming out. This is a classroom.
In my view, just having been out there for a couple of days back home, there is at least hundreds of millions of dollars of damage that we saw, and it is still happening. When you have an earthquake of this magnitude, you have aftershocks, which are also very stressful and can be big and can do more damage.
We have had over 2,700 aftershocks in the Anchorage Bowl. This is the Anchorage Bowl right here. Twenty of them have been over 4.0, and five have been over 5.0. That is a big earthquake–a 5.0 earthquake. So we have had five more of those. That is stressful, as you can imagine.
People are tired. The first night after the earthquake, nobody was sleeping because of the number of aftershocks.
When I was home, I felt a number of these, but Alaskans are resilient. They have grit. They have spirit. They are tough. The phrase going around to describe the State right now is “shaken’’–certainly, still shaken, still going on today–“not broken.’’ There is frustration, and the country is going to need their help to rebuild. I have no doubt that is going to happen here.
Here is the amazing thing. I think it is a Christmas miracle. You saw that destruction. You saw that at rush hour–kids in all of these classrooms, and there were no fatalities, not one death. You can rebuild a road, and you can rebuild a school, but if we were burying our kids right now, this would be a very, very different tragedy.
Remember, just going to work, it was dark. It is dark in Alaska in the morning. It is dark during a lot of the day now in Alaska. It was cold, and yet there were no fatalities and very few injuries.
So what happened? How did that happen? Somebody asked: Where is the positive story here?
Well, we get a lot of earthquakes in Alaska. This is just a chart that shows, from a couple of years ago, what kind of earthquakes we get. The Presiding Officer knows I come and talk about my State a lot, but here are just a few stats on earthquakes.
Alaska is home to the second largest earthquake ever recorded in history–the 1964 Great Alaskan Good Friday earthquake, registering a magnitude of 9.2 on the Richter scale. It lasted almost 5 minutes, if you can imagine that. Then we had a huge tsunami that killed dozens and dozens of people.
Eleven percent of all of the world’s recorded earthquakes are in Alaska. Three of the eight largest earthquakes the world has ever seen have been in Alaska, and 7 of the 10 largest earthquakes in the United States were in Alaska. One earthquake registering a magnitude of 7 to 8 on the Richter scale happens every year in Alaska, but they don’t normally happen in big, populated areas. There have been six earthquakes registering a magnitude from 6 to 7 on the Richter scale, but, again, not near the major cities. Our State is so big that we have a lot of these, and nobody gets hurt.
Speaking of getting hurt, earthquakes of this size–a 7.0, even a 6.0, even a 5.0–when they are near population centers, normally, in other parts of the world, they do a lot of damage–and they certainly did a lot of damage in Alaska–but, unfortunately, they also take lives.
For example, last year in Indonesia, there was an earthquake registering 6.9 on the Richter scale that killed almost 500 people. It is not just in developing countries. In New Zealand in 2011, there was an earthquake registering 6.3 on the Richter scale that killed over 150 people.
As I said, we were fortunate that there were no deaths. So what is part of the reason for that? Given how many earthquakes we have had over the years, we have learned a lot. The first thing we learned is about building codes. Fortunately–again, thank God–we had no buildings collapse. We have a lot of structures–homes, businesses, schools–that have severe structural damage, but a collapsing building is where you get a lot of deaths. With strong, strict building codes, particularly after the 1964 earthquake, that helps to prevent that.
It is also people who are resilient, tough, and trained. I want to talk a little bit about this because I have no doubt this is why we had no fatalities.
The group I really want to do a shout-out to–and I am just so proud of them–are the students and the teachers who were there in the beginning of the morning. I went through some of the schools just in the last few days, such as Houston Middle School and the elementary school in Eagle River. These schools just look like someone had completely exploded them inside. Yet these kids–young men and women–acted calm, heroic, and, most importantly, they did what they have been trained to do.
In Alaska, because we have so many earthquakes, the kids go through earthquake training all the time. They duck and cover under their desks.
There is a video that has kind of gone viral because I know other kids in the country are looking at it. It is actually from Mr. Benice’s class, right when it happened. He is a teacher at the Mears Middle School in Anchorage. The video was on because he was supposed to capture his lesson Friday morning. He is a grad student, and he had to film the class and what he was teaching for his studies.
What the video captured, instead, were the students who are trained to react in ways that it is remarkable how automatic it was. After they saw this in Alaska, one reporter called these kids in this classroom “a well-oiled machine.’’
What am I talking about? If you watch it, the kids are sitting in their class. The teacher is talking, and you see a little bit of shaking. Boom. Then, every kid, without being told, knew exactly what to do. They were under their desks. Then, you see a lot of shaking, and, then, you see debris starting to come down. If you are not under a desk, you could be seriously injured or even killed by some of what is coming from the ceiling or worse.
In Houston Middle School, when Senator Murkowski and I were touring, there were cinder blocks that were broken and shot out from the ceiling and the wall in these classrooms. Students are in there, but they were trained, and they were ducking and covering.
In the video from Mr. Benice’s classroom, after the shaking was over–it was about a minute, which seems like an eternity when you are in it–a student can be heard asking: “Will they cancel school today?’’
Mr. Benice replied: “Well, that is probably not the first thing we need to be worrying about right now.’’
Yesterday, a niece of one of my staff members here in DC said that the video of Mr. Benice’s class was being shown in schools in Iowa, including her school, Prairie View Middle School, in Waukee, IA, because the teachers are telling their students: Hey, this why we train, and this is what you do when there is some kind of natural disaster.
Literally, I have no doubt that the training that happened in Alaska saved lives. I want to thank those kids, those students. I am so proud, and I really, really, want to thank the teachers of Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley for doing this training for the kids, month after month and year after year. It obviously paid off.
In terms of the reaction that you see, this why, again, I think all of my constituents are the Alaskans of the Week.
The first responders, as they do in so many emergencies, our local heroes, reacted immediately. Civil engineers and city and State workers immediately checked on all of these highways and bridges and off-ramps, some of which collapsed, and essential infrastructure, such as hospitals. The Port of Anchorage has had all kinds of structural damage, which is very dangerous in terms of the supply chain for my entire State.
The U.S. Geological Survey and NOAA–the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration–gave us real-time information about the earthquakes and, importantly, the potential tsunamis. There were tsunami warnings all over Alaska because of how worried we were, being next to the ocean, that that may have triggered a tsunami. Thankfully, that did not happen.
The State and local officials and the Anchorage Fire Department received hundreds of calls about damaged gas lines. We did have some house fires because of it. We did lose some houses because of it. Our utilities jumped into action. ENSTAR, which is a natural gas company, went to over 700 houses that had reported gas leaks. For the thousands who lost power, they got power back on in a relatively short time. This is very important because when it is 20 degrees in Alaska and we lose power in the winter, it is not as though we can borrow power from Illinois or Kentucky. We are there, alone and unafraid. We have to produce our own power. Yet our utility companies got power back on in my house in a few hours.
Ken Bearman worked for ENSTAR for 46 years before retirement on November 9. Guess what he did as a utility guy. He suited up and came back to work on the job, to just go out and help people.
That is the other thing. Alaskans went door-to-door checking on their neighbors. Shelters were immediately opened. Hospitals prepared for what they thought were going to be massive injuries and potentially deaths. Churches and nonprofits were available. That is what Alaskans do. When you live out and alone in part of a State that is pretty remote and communities are remote, that is what you have to do.
The other group that kicked into gear–and I do want to thank my colleagues here–was the Federal Government. FEMA launched people almost immediately from the west coast, and we heard from senior Federal officials almost immediately. I want to commend the Trump administration and the rest of the Federal Government for their quick reaction. So many of them are in Alaska now.
Almost within an hour, the President of the United States, who was down in Argentina at the G20, tweeted:
To the great people of Alaska, you have been hit hard by the big one. Please follow the directions of the highly trained professionals who are there to help you. Your Federal Government will spare no expense. God bless you all.
That was from the President.
The Vice President, who was also traveling, called me and Senator Murkowski within a few hours. The Chief of Staff of the White House, General Kelly, called. Every one of them wanted to know: What can we do? How can we help? Who do we need to send?
The Secretary of Transportation–I want to give a special shout-out to Elaine Chao. She has already checked in with me three different times, and they have people on their way up to help with major infrastructure damages. The same with our FEMA Administrator, who has been a busy man, let’s face it. Brock Long did a conference call with me, Senator Murkowski, and Congressman Young.
I also want to thank my Senate colleagues. A lot of the press likes to report that we are always battling, that we are always fighting. I don’t think that is true, by the way. It is absolutely not true. We have certain things on which we have principled differences, but a lot of action here is bipartisan, and the relationships matter. Within just a few hours, I had several of my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, calling, texting, emailing: Hey, Dan, we heard about Alaska. We are seeing these images on TV. We got your back. We are praying for you. And that means a lot.
I was talking to Senator Pat Leahy, the Senator from Vermont–a Democrat from Vermont–this morning about this very issue. He has seen a lot here in the Senate. He has been in the Senate for a long time–over four decades. Do you know what he said to me? It is important to remember that when these kinds of things happen, it reminds everybody in this body that we are the United States of America–the United States of America. We take care of each other when we know bad things are happening in different parts of the country.
Kind of related again to this reaction, Senator Murkowski and I had the opportunity to go out to the Incident Command Center. Yes, there are times when you don’t feel like the different levels of government are working or coordinating. By the way, our first responders include our military, our National Guard, which does such a great job. This Incident Command Center would give any American pride because they were all there, almost like a battle, like a war, like an op center, for the military people watching. It was FEMA, it was Federal, it was the military, it was the State, and it was local, all working like this, literally working together, hand in glove.
So to my constituents, we are going to have a long road to recovery, there is no doubt about that, but people are already getting on it. There are going to be frustrations, and we have to work through those. I know people are still scared and nervous and wondering how they are going to pay for all the damage, but we are going to work through that together.
For my colleagues here in the Senate, you know, we have had a lot of natural disasters over the last few years–at least since I have been here in the Senate–throughout the country. There were hurricanes in Florida, Louisiana, and Houston, TX. California just went through horrendous wildfires that killed so many of our fellow Americans. This body acts. This body has acted with disaster relief funding.
I remember saying to a number of Senators here and to my constituents that when those big–some of those packages have been big in terms of the funding, in terms of the dollars. Colleagues said: Hey, Dan, we need your vote on this.
None of that money was going to Alaska, but I remember saying each time: You know, I am voting for these packages. Why? I think it is the right thing to do.
Also, let’s face it, but for the grace of God go I and my State and my constituents. I live in a State where there are all kinds of natural disasters, such as wildfires, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis. But I think that is the attitude here in general. When bad things happen–particularly natural disasters–to other parts of the country, the vast majority of this body says: Hey, I am going to help. I am going to help.
So I am already getting the sense that my colleagues here will make sure that help comes to Alaska as we continue to assess the damage.
I also want to just mention to the American people who are watching, including Alaskans or folks from the lower 48, Senator Murkowski and Congressman Young and I held a press conference on Friday afternoon after talking to the Federal Government, working closely with our State leaders, to give people information. It was a national press conference–actually national media coverage–so I took the opportunity–a lot of this was still going on, including aftershocks, and we didn’t know. We didn’t know if there were 200 people killed. So I asked people watching to pray for their fellow Americans up in Alaska.
As I mentioned, yes, we were prepared. Yes, the building codes in Alaska are probably some of the strongest on the planet. I am so proud of our students, who were trained by great teachers. Our first responders were out there in the cold within minutes, let alone others working, and are still doing it, by the way.
I have no doubt that part of the reason we had zero fatalities, zero deaths with a 7.0 earthquake in a city of almost 300,000 people–in most parts of the world, there would not be zero deaths; there would probably be thousands. I have no doubt that part of the reason is because of those prayers. So I want to thank anyone and everyone who was praying for Alaska that day because I guarantee you, it mattered.
To my fellow Alaskans, I again want to thank you. I think that on Friday and even continuing up to today, you represent the best of America, the best of what we as Americans love to see in our fellow Americans: resilience, toughness, preparedness, and helping each other. That was on display and has been on display, and I couldn’t be prouder to represent the great State of Alaska, particularly now.
We have a lot of work to do. There are going to be frustrations. It is going to take time. But be assured that we will be working here and at home–Senator Murkowski and I but also with our colleagues–to make our recovery from this massive earthquake as speedy as possible.
Senator Dan Sullivan