Earthquake renews focus on Alaska’s emergency readiness

JUNEAU — A magnitude 7.1 earthquake in Alaska’s most populous region has renewed focus on the state’s readiness to deal with a natural disaster.

And it’s not just earthquakes that pose a danger across the vast state but also wildfires, floods, landslides and even volcanos.

Robert Forgit, Alaska area manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he thinks Alaskans are resilient and perhaps more used to quakes and flooding.

The state also does a good job of working with communities on emergency plans, he said.

Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said it’s hard to say how prepared residents are.

Many people hunt and fish and have a freezer full of meat, and there are people who live near the road system but are remote enough that they tend to stock up more on food, he said.

The state recommends having at least seven days of supplies on hand and a family plan in case of emergencies.

In the case of major damage to the Port of Anchorage, through which an estimated 90 percent of commodities for most Alaskans enter the state, there would be a cascading effect, Zidek said.

It would take time to set up alternate routes, such as use of other ports, having things flown in or trucking supplies from the Alaska Highway, which runs from Canada.

In 2012, then-Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration proposed stockpiling food around the state’s two largest cities, which also have military bases, in case the state’s 735,000 residents were cut off from supply lines.

But when Gov. Bill Walker took office and asked departments to tighten belts as the state dealt with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, the stockpiling idea was tossed, Zidek said. The state has other food resources it can tap, including local food banks and partnerships with federal agencies and non-governmental agencies, like the Red Cross, he said.

“I think Alaskans are more prepared to deal with natural disasters than other communities, say in the Lower 48, because we’re a resilient people anyway. This is the Last Frontier,” said Forgit.

Alaskans, living along an active seismic zone, also are a bit more used to earth-shaking and flooding along rivers like the Yukon and Kuskokwim, he said.

In places like the Kenai Peninsula, where four houses were destroyed following the early Sunday morning earthquake, authorities put as much time as they can into stressing readiness, said Scott Walden, emergency management director for the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

A group of about 150 residents in the region are trained as part of a Citizens Corps to help provide basic fire or first aid response as a stopgap if emergency services are not able to respond immediately. Members of the corps opened the shelter after the quake until the Red Cross arrived, he said.

It’s neighbors helping neighbors, Walden said. “Not to take the place of emergency responders but to be able to provide some semblance of organization and comfort until the responders can get there,” he said.

In 2013, an ice jam along the Yukon River flooded the small community of Galena in Alaska’s Interior. Steve Erickson said he’s lived in Galena for 25 years and thought he knew what flooding was. But he had never experienced something like that before — “fast and furious.”

He and his wife have rebuilt their home on high pilings. They’re also are more vigilant around break-up in the spring. Preparations include making sure there’s enough bottled water and food in the house for a week or so, he said.

“You can just have a bunch of canned food and you’re good to go,” he said.

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