Let’s talk about that earthquake

By now you’ve probably heard the basics:

At approximately 8:30 a.m. on Friday, November 30th, 2018, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Southcentral Alaska. No deaths, no serious injuries, not much structural damage, but significant road damage.

Of course, there’s always more to the story.

This post’s featured photo, from the Associated Press, was taken 2.1 miles (as the crow flies) from my house, which was undamaged — practically untouched. The location of the road damage is 20 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake, which lies on the edge of Cook Inlet.

Google earth map
A map I made of places relevant to the earthquake, and where I was at the time.

In the moments before the quake struck, I was at Colony Middle School, 30 miles away, supervising 24 sixth-graders as they silently worked on Chromebooks at their desks. Some were taking quizzes, others were working on book reports, a few were starting to type up their personal narratives.

Then the room began to shake.

Loudly but calmly, I said, “Alright, everybody under the desks!” Books began to fall off or out of desks, so we knew it was serious. Then the lights started to flicker, and ceiling tiles began to fall, and the whimpering and yelling and crying began.

I yelled at everyone, “QUIET!” so they could hear me when I started giving further instructions, as soon as the quake ended. Only it wasn’t ending. In fact, the building was roaring.

The lights went out, dust filled the air and several of us began to cough. At least two students said “I think I’m going to puke,” to which I responded, “That’s OK, you can puke if you need to.” Then it was, “it’s OK guys, it’s gonna be OK. Breathe. Stay calm. Keep breathing, guys.”

The shaking continued, but it was growing quieter. When the movement appeared to have ceased, I told the kids to stay quiet and stay put, and stood up. What I saw was unreal. Not an inch of floor space not covered by a desk or a ceiling tile or other fallen debris. Dust particles still filled the air and lights hung down a couple feet, ripped from the grid.

(Since we were on the second floor, in a room with South-facing windows, it wasn’t quite pitch black — the sun hadn’t risen, but had just started to show a glow over the mountains. I think someone’s phone light had clicked on, too, so there was just enough light for me to see the degree of destruction.)

“Is anyone hurt?” I asked. Not a sound. “Say something if you’re hurt.” Nothing. (I was fairly certain no one could have been seriously injured by anything in the room, so I was sure students would be able to verbally respond if they had been hurt at all.) I said, “OK, stay where you are, I’m going around to check things out.” I took big, slow steps over the tiles and books and chairs in my path and made my way to the door. The chatter began again, starting with “Can we call our parents?” and I shushed them, harshly.

“You guys know that you’re not supposed to have phones in class, but yes, if you have them you can call your parents. I’m going to see if there’s anyone in the hallway telling us what to do,” I said, and opened the door.

Other students across the hall were standing in a doorway already, and when I looked around the light of a cell phone shone in my face. It was the school nurse, or the health teacher — both came by, I don’t remember who said what, when — who said students would be getting their jackets and preparing to go outside.

“Go to their lockers?” I asked. Yes, was the response.

Back in the room, I told the students to get up carefully. Some expressed their surprise in a  “whoa, cool!” kind of way, but most were silent. I remember I told them to close the laptops and go get their coats from their lockers, then head to our fire drill location at the front of the school.

As they funneled out, I grabbed the emergency backpack and went back to my desk for my roster, asking the paraprofessional in the room to grab our red-green safety sign with my name on it. I went into my office to grab my coat with my phone and car keys in the pockets, and waited in the classroom doorway, with the three or so students who didn’t want to go to their locker, or were trying to ask me something. I’m not sure, because the shaking began again.

“DOORWAYS AND DESKS! IN DOORWAYS OR UNDER DESKS!” I shouted as a few students came running back from the hallway. Some went in my office, some stayed with me. When the shaking stopped, “No more lockers!” I yelled, less dire but still firm. “Everybody out!”

Students were quiet and quick. Even in the moment I was a little proud, seeing my students follow directions so well. One girl I had seen before but didn’t have in class was standing on the stairwell with her phone out, facing the wrong way. “Let’s go,” I said firmly, but she ignored me. “Now,” I said as I walked past, and I was afraid she wouldn’t come, but another teacher — her teacher, I assume — finally urged her on.

At the bottom of the stairs, students started to go different directions, so I yelled, “Out front! Buxbaum’s class, out front!”

Another tremor and we hurried faster, out into the freezing dawn.

The snow in our usual spot was about an inch deep, so I encouraged students to stand on the cleared part of the sidewalk, perpendicular to our usual line. One crying student said she was cold, so I handed her my coat and started to take attendance. I had lost track of the aide who had been in my class (and I later found out she had not been able to grab the safety sign). Several students from my class were missing, but most had been spotted going outside in the other direction, toward the bus lot, the students said. I believed them, but I told them I couldn’t count them “here” unless I saw them in front of me with my own eyes.

I can still see the tear-stained faces of so many students in my mind so clearly, and probably will for a long time. One girl asked, “Should we have our parents take us home?”

I looked her in the eye and asked, “Do you wanna go home?”

“Kinda,” she said.

“Then you should go home.”

Soon, parents started arriving, and I told my class that if they wanted to leave, they had to tell me who they were going with and bring that person to me, or bring me to that person, so I could verify the identity of the adult later if necessary. If a student wanted to go with a friend’s parent, I said they had to call and let me know who said it was OK, and that both parents had agreed to the pick up.

I had not been told to do this, I just did it. I wanted the students to do what helped them feel the most safe, but of course I wasn’t about to let them wander off with someone without showing me that person and telling me who they were.

Things are a little less clear after that, I imagine, because the danger had begun to seem less immediate, and a twisted sense of normalcy began to set in. We were able to locate my missing students, get a blanket out of my car for kids in t-shirts, and send some texts and phone calls, until the service went out again.

After about half an hour outside, I think, we were cleared to go back in the building, down to the gym. The lights were still out, and would be for a long time, but with the help of a few hundred cell phone lights (maybe changing my in-class cell phone policy now), we were able to safely make our way down the stairs and get somewhat organized. Sixth graders were to be in one area, seventh in another, and eighth in another. Some siblings of course ignored this rule, but once they found their brother, sister, cousin or whatever, we convinced them to go back to their respective areas.

gym floor
Broken ceiling tiles became survival souvenirs for students, some of whom used pieces of the chalky debris to make their mark on the gym floor.

I’d say I remember probably five or so aftershocks over the next 3 hours, and each time set a new surge of fear (and waves of nausea) into those of us left. The lights came back on around 10:30 I believe, and as the adrenaline ebbed away, I realized I had not eaten breakfast, or consumed anything that morning, except for most of a 12-oz. vanilla latte (which had  miraculously survived the quake, but was kicked over outside when I was taking attendance. Figures). I had planned to remedy that during my prep, second period…

One of our generous staff members was handing out candy though, which I gratefully accepted.

I finally left the gym after all of my first-hour students and most of the students from my other classes had been picked up, and was told to ask our assistant principal for permission to go upstairs and retrieve my purse. Unfortunately, he was preoccupied, listening to a screaming parent, who I felt for, but couldn’t help. It was out of my hands, so I walked away. An admin-in-training gave me the go-ahead to enter what might aptly be called the warzone.

I walked up the stairs quickly, but slowly down the hallway, where the damage was minimal but visible. It’s hard to describe what the next moments were like, but I’ll do my best.

Entering my classroom in the daylight, my heart sank. I couldn’t understand it then, but I guess seeing the damage was like seeing my students’ fear manifest in the physical. It was devastating.

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As I quickly snapped photos of what really has become a second home, it occurred to me that I was in mourning. I have often felt, in the last few years of my life, that it is not the tragedy itself that saddens us, but the reminder of the feelings we had in the moment that weigh us down. Maybe it’s selfish. Maybe it’s inevitable. Life goes on.

In the 36 hours after the initial quake, Alaska experienced 162 aftershocks of magnitude 3 or above, including one of 5.7-magnitude 5 minutes after the big event. Not everyone felt all of them, of course, but the ones I did experience gave me a little insight into how PTSD works. Even being back with my husband and in-laws, and later my parents, didn’t quite calm the nerves that stood on end every time the house trembled.

But it could’ve been so much worse.

The 1964 Good Friday Earthquake (yes, this one was on a Friday as well) registered at 9.2 on the moment* scale, which I recently learned is logarithmic, thereby indicating a 100-fold difference between what we experienced on Nov. 30 and what happened 54 years ago. During my relatively brief but prolific stint as a reporter, I interviewed at least two people who recounted that moment in history: former Frontiersman reporter Debra McGhan, and Willow resident and World War II veteran Joe Rayfield. I couldn’t understand then, and I barely do now, but I’m grateful, beyond grateful, that I haven’t had to live through a disaster like that. According to Anchorage Daily News, 139 people died that day. This week? Not a one.

We can’t predict what Mother Nature will throw at us (although Alaska’s meme lords may illustrate imagined foreshadowing). What we can do is learn from our mistakes, appreciate the policies in place that protect us, and move on.

That said, I saw a tweet or something somewhere that says, “Don’t talk to me like I’m the same person I was before the earthquake,” and I want to echo that. We are not the same.

We are better.


*Edit: As I understand it, the Richter scale is now obsolete. The magnitudes of the 1964 earthquake and the 2018 event were measured on the moment scale. For more information about how the measurements work, click here.

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