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Alaska’s earthquake didn’t kill anyone—here’s why

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A major quake in 1964 changed the way the state designed its cities

A car is trapped on a collapsed section of the offramp of Minnesota Drive in Anchorage after a 7.0 earthquake on Friday, November 30.
AP Photo/Dan Joling

A powerful earthquake rocked Anchorage, Alaska, last Friday, sending horrific videos of swaying rooms and fractured roads rippling out across social media. Yet amazingly, no deaths were reported as a result of the 7.0 quake—a testament to Alaska’s commitment to resilience.

“Building codes mean something,” Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said in a press conference Friday.

When the earthquake struck at 8:29 a.m. local time just eight miles outside of Anchorage, officials braced for the worst. The shaking began with a sharp jolt and lasted for a minute, causing many people to run outside. Worries immediately circulated that snow and freezing temperatures would hamper relief efforts. Alaska only sees about six hours of daylight this time of year.

Yet no large buildings collapsed, a handful of structure fires were quickly put out, and even though many homes and businesses were damaged, there was no loss of life. Although some roads were shown completely impassible, with large swaths of asphalt shattered like ice, no bridges or other major pieces of infrastructure were destroyed.

Geologically, Alaska lucked out. Even though Friday’s earthquake struck in a highly populated area, the epicenter was relatively deep—about 25 to 30 miles below the ground—meaning that a lot of its energy was released before it reached the surface.

But the real reason that this earthquake in Alaska was not more destructive can be attributed to one major factor: Updated building requirements which properly reflect the severity of risk.

In 1964, Alaska suffered the strongest earthquake in U.S. history when a 9.2 rocked the state. (Only one earthquake, a 9.5 that hit Chile in 1960, has been stronger worldwide.) The 1964 quake—known as both the Good Friday and Great Alaska earthquake—caused widespread damage that killed over 100 people, including 13 in California due to a tsunami.

Some of the most striking photos of the damage include the collapse of a street in Anchorage’s business district due to a landslide. In some places, the signage of businesses are shown resting on the sidewalk; in other places, the sidewalk itself dropped 11 feet.

Storefronts on Anchorage’s Fourth Street plunged below street level due to a landslide during Alaska’s 1964 earthquake. It trigged major changes in building codes.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

After 1964, the way Alaska addressed its recovery made earthquake safety part of the national conversation. Beyond revamping its building codes, rebuilding efforts also included conversations about where not to build, as William Leith, senior science advisor for earthquake and geologic hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey testified to Congress in 2014. “The 1964 disaster demonstrated the importance of considering earthquake effects in urban planning and development.”

Like the heated conversations about where and how communities should be allowed to rebuild after California’s deadliest and most devastating wildfire season in history, changes to zoning and building codes are becoming central to a city’s ability to recover from any disruption, especially as climate change accelerates the power and frequency of natural disasters.

Still, 50 years later, the state of California, which shoulders the country’s greatest earthquake risk due to its population density, hasn’t seen the same urgency when it comes to legislation around building and safety codes. In the last 30 years, much smaller-magnitude quakes in California—Northridge’s 6.7 in 1994 and Loma Prieta’s 6.9 in 1989—caused billions in damage and killed more than 50 people each.

At a state hearing earlier this year, seismologist Lucy Jones and author of the book The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them) said without reform, a California city is likely to suffer the same fate as Christchurch, New Zealand, which was hit by an 6.2 earthquake in 2011.

“Nobody died in a modern building,” she testified. “But once the dust settled, they had to tear down 1,800 buildings and their central business district was closed for five years.”

In many earthquake-prone cities, the codes that might save lives still aren’t strong enough to ensure that the economy emerges intact.

A New York Times story noted that “unfazed” Alaskans who spent the weekend taking selfies in fissures of asphalt were already heading back to work today. But that’s the real goal for any city—to be up and running, even hours after a major disaster.

Tomasz Sulczynski was headed to the Anchorage airport when the earthquake struck, trapping his SUV in a sinkhole. When the shaking stopped, he climbed out of his car and hitched a ride to the airport. By the time he got there, the airport had already been thoroughly checked for damage and had resumed normal operations. He made his flight.