Homer residents got a rough wake-up call at 8:29 a.m. Friday in the form of a 7 magnitude earthquake that rattled the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage and surrounding areas on Nov. 30, St. Andrew’s Day, the national holiday celebrated in Scotland for its patron saint.
Some Homerites, however, got a slightly more nasty shock as they traveled through Anchorage Friday morning.
The tremblor hit about 7 miles north of Anchorage and was only about 27 miles deep, according to the Alaska Earthquake Center. It’s the third 7 magnitude or stronger earthquake to be felt on the Kenai Peninsula in three years, after a 7.1 on Jan. 24, 2016 that caused major damage in Kenai and a 7.9 on Jan. 23 that triggered Homer’s first official tsunami evacuation.
A tsunami warning was initially activated for the Cook Inlet area and Southern Kenai Peninsula, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but it was lifted about 90 minutes after the initial shock.
On the scene
Tom Sulczynski, an IT analyst with the City of Homer, and Bekah Taylor, who works at the Rum Locker, were in a car on the way to the Ted Stevens International Airport when the quake struck. Sulczynski was driving on the off ramp leading from Minnesota Drive, also known as Walter J. Hickel Parkway, to International Airport Road.
“I thought I either had a flat tire…,” he said last Friday. “Then I realized, no, the way the car was driving, it didn’t feel like a flat tire. I thought it was maybe a broken axle. So I was kind of trying to get around cars to pull over, and then I saw, you know, the road kind of breaking up around me, so I realized it was an earthquake.”
Taylor, Sulczynski’s passenger, said they knew it wasn’t a flat tire when they saw other cars stopping on the off ramp.
“We’re slowing down because we thought that something was wrong with the car,” Taylor said. “And then finally we got ahead a little bit and basically we started seeing like the side of the road, like it was collapsing — the side of the road that we were on. And you could see it getting deeper and deeper.”
“I turned around and looked out back and you could see all the chunky pieces of the road that we had just driven on, like, two seconds before,” she continued. “And then we just stopped, and that’s where the car is right now.”
The pair were flying to Seattle to take care of some business with a storage unit Taylor has there, and then on to California for a short vacation to visit Sulczynski’s family. They had to abandon the vehicle on the road after climbing to a safe spot.
“There’s a slab that was in front of the car that kind of was leaning from, like, the side that we were on … and so we just kind of climbed over that to get out of there,” Sulczynski said.
Sulczynski said emergency services showed up about 20 minutes after the quake.
“They didn’t really do much except take a statement and get all our information,” he said last Friday. “There’s really not much they could do. My car is still there. It’s stuck and I haven’t really figured out where to go from here to get it out of there.”
Sulczynski said a passerby offered them a ride on to the airport. Last week, he wasn’t able to get confirmation from the Anchorage Police or local towing companies that his vehicle will be removed from the road. Alaska Public Media later reported that a towing company recovered his car.
“I have OnStar … as part of my, like, package with the car, and their response was, …’we don’t do earthquake recovery,’” Sulczynski said. “I called my insurance company and they basically just gave me phone numbers for … towing companies in town, you know in Anchorage. They weren’t really wanting to do anything either. It’s kind of frustrating.”
He said he and Taylor would continue on with their planned trip and attempt to recover the car remotely. Most of the flights are delayed, Sulczynski said.
“It’s pretty chill,” Taylor said of the scene at the airport last Friday. “When we first got here there was like a water line (that) broke by the Starbucks over at Alaska Airlines, and it was just like raining inside the building, and they were mopping it up.”
Another Homer resident, Seth Spencer, was also at the airport awaiting a flight back to Homer. Spencer, education program coordinator for the Center for Alaska Coastal Studies, was in Anchorage for the Alaska After School Conference with fellow educator Henry Rieske, were staying at the Sheraton Hotel, where the conference was being held.
At the time of the tremblor, however, Spencer said they were in a café across the street. He said power went out almost immediately after the earthquake began.
“Thing were falling off the walls,” he said. “Most of us went under tables.”
Someone shouted for everyone to get out, so Spencer and Rieske exited the café. Spencer said there was water damage to the hotel, where pipes had burst, causing ceiling tiles to fall down.
Spencer and Rieske got a Lyft to the airport, where they were already scheduled to fly back to Homer last Friday evening. They tried to get an earlier flight, but Spencer said they’ve all been canceled.
“We were both supposed to present today at the conference,” Spencer said.
Once they realized the power was out and the conference was canceled, Spencer said he and Rieske decided there was no reason to stick around. Coincidentally, he said members of NOAA were also in attendance at the conference, and were able to let everyone know they were safe from a tsunami at their location.
“I think overall it sounds like nobody really got injured hopefully,” Spencer said.
Homer couple Ron and Ann Keffer also went through the quake in Anchorage. In an email, Ron Keffer said he and his wife had been staying at the MyPlace Hotel on the Old Seward Highway near 40th Avenue and getting up when the quake hit.
“We knew then that we were in for it, and we thought it would be a near thing since the hotel seemed about to shake apart,” Ron Keffer wrote. “Since I was naked as the day I was born, I felt some trepidation about fleeing the building.”
He said the flat-screen TV danced on top of the dresser, flying a foot into the air, and a laundry basket flew 4 feet into the air. The Keffers huddled on the floor until the initial quake stopped. Hotel alarms blasted and water pipes burst. Ann Keffer left while Ron Keffer got dressed and followed her. Out in the parking lot, hotel workers started courtesy vans to get people out of the cold. The Keffers later went back in, packed up and left. Even though a Village Inn had been damaged, they got breakfast there. They visited with an Anchorage friend and headed home around 2 p.m. after the Seward Highway had been cleared.
“Our knees were quite shaky for a couple of hours after the initial quake,” Ron Keffer wrote. “Ann and I both reflected that we have been through enough of this that we experience some really high anxiety — an adrenalin high — during a quake, but little fear. That may be a foolish reaction, but you do develop a certain feeling of, ‘Well, we’ve done this before.’ We just don’t want to do it again.”
According to the USGS, the Pacific plate subducted under the North America plate beneath Alaska, “at the Alaska-Aleutians Trench, approximately 150 km south-southeast of this event.”
“The location and mechanism of this earthquake indicate rupture occurred on an intraslab fault within the subducting Pacific slab, rather than on the shallower thrust-faulting interface between these two plates,” the USGS reported.
Based on the magnitude, location and depth of the quake, the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer issued a tsunami advisory quickly followed by a warning at 8:32 a.m. Ken McPherson, a senior watchstander at the center, said they try to get out tsunami warnings within 4 minutes of a quake.
“Speed is the utmost essence of what we do,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Watchstanders, or scientists who monitor earthquakes, get computer generated alarms indicating potential danger from quakes, but last Friday they didn’t need that.
“In this case everybody in Southcentral Alaska knew about the same time,” McPherson said. “The seismic sheer wave travels a lot faster than the telemetry.”
The initial warning was based on the size of the quake, but after the warning, tsunami scientists had to then figure out whether there would be a tsunami, and if so, where and when it would hit. For deep-sea quakes like the 7.9 magnitude quake that caused a tsunami warning and evacuation on Jan. 23, analysts look at ocean sensors. For the Friday quake, scientists looked at tidal gauges, including one in lower Cook Inlet.
“It’s pretty clear when a tsunami arrives at a tide gauge,” McPherson said. “It looks different from a tidal signal.”
The concern last week was for underwater landslides or ground shifting that could generate a tsunami, as happened in the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake.
“Any time you shake the earth with those kind of accelerations you saw on Friday, there’s a lot of bad things that can happen with that,” McPherson said.
Because scientists were looking at potential sources of landslides, they had to look at a worst-case scenario of the furthest distance from a possible tsunami and the time it would take to reach impacted areas. When no waves were observed hitting tide gauges in those areas, the center canceled the warning.
“At that point we were pretty happy there was no wave out there,” McPherson said.
The tsunami center canceled the warning at 10:07 a.m.
Kenai Peninsula Emergency Department Manager Dan Nelson said some minor damage to borough roads has been reported on the central peninsula.
“We have some reports from the Nikiski area of some cracks along some of the state roads on the Kenai Spur Highway, and we’re currently assessing all of our borough roads and the state is assessing their state roads for damage as well,” Nelson told KBBI. “However, we don’t have any borough roads completely closed at this time. Other than that, we have had some incidental reports of damage to things like appliances and homes and other things.
Infrastructure and roads around Anchorage, Wasilla and Palmer were badly damaged. The Alaska Department of Transportation temporarily closed the Seward Highway at mile marker 112 due to a rockslide.
While areas farther north were hit hard by Friday’s tremblor, the Homer area and much of the Kenai Peninsula escaped unscathed.
All schools in danger of a potential tsunami were evacuated to Homer High School, which was also opened as a shelter for the public. Similarly, in Seward, students from other schools were evacuated to Seward High School.
All sport practices and events originally scheduled for Friday were canceled, including a complimentary performance of the Homer Nutcracker Ballet for families and others. All afternoon classes for Title 1, preschool and special education preschool were also cancelled Friday.
“We did just fine,” said Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins.
He said staff at the Harbormaster’s office evacuated shortly after the initial quake.
“…We started making preps to get out,” he said. “Common sense says when the ground shakes that hard you should head for high ground. … The sirens hadn’t sounded yet, but we had lots of company as we were leaving.”
After the all-clear and tsunami warning was canceled, harbor crews returned to assess damage. Hawkins said he and other officers did a quick assessment and did not see any obvious damage. He recommended that mariners check boats and lines.
Grog Shop owner Mel Strydom reported no damage at the Pioneer Avenue liquor store as well as the Rum Locker and Grog Shop East stores. He was more worried about being able to get supplies coming down from Anchorage on the Seward and Sterling Highways that had been damaged in the quake.
“We’re all good,” Strydom said. “It’s going to impact us because our suppliers come out of Anchorage. They’ll be down for awhile. I’m assuming the road will be open soon.”
South Peninsula Hospital reported no injuries and no damage from the quake. The hospital went to Hospital Incident Command System, or HICS, Level 1 right after the quake, and looked for possible damage. After the tsunami warning it went to HICS 2, said SPH Spokesperson Derotha Ferraro.
At HICS 2, hospital department heads assess staff levels and resources in anticipation of a possible emergency. When the tsunami warning was canceled at about 10:05 a.m., the hospital canceled its HICS 2 alert.
SPH staff also participated in a statewide conference with other hospitals, Ferraro said.
“Part of it is simply reporting out, reporting the impact to your community,” she said. “More important it is to assess available resources.”
SPH officials had done an earlier conference and report with Central Peninsula Hospital. The hospital also sent a staff member to the city Incident Command at the Homer Volunteer Fire Department fire hall and received periodic updates, Ferraro said.
During the statewide conference, Anchorage hospitals reported no surge in need.
“That was a relief to the state that hospitals weren’t in trouble as far as capacity goes,” Ferraro said.
Some Anchorage hospitals reported issues with water supply from pipes breaking, but staffing and beds are fine, she said. Hospitals in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley have plenty of bed capacity if Anchorage has a need.
As part of planned emergency training, the hospital will hold in-house pandemic training this week that includes setting up an Incident Command Center like it did for Friday’s earthquake. The hospital also participates in a pandemic exercise from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday at Homer High School. As part of that exercise, the community can get free flu shots.
“Any lessons learned today we get to practice next week,” Ferraro said last Friday.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Michael Armstrong at email@example.com.