Senior centers assess after riding out earthquake
January 1, 2019
A magnitude 7.0 earthquake took Southcentral Alaskans by surprise the morning of Nov. 30, 2018. The quake is the second largest the area has seen since the Good Friday earthquake of 1964, a magnitude 9.2 quake that destroyed parts of Anchorage, sunk trees into the earth and killed over 125 people statewide. Wild tales of the most recent shake abound for many, with seniors that survived the Good Friday earthquake making comparisons between the two. Senior centers across the region and the seniors they serve responded to the most recent disaster with the usual charming Alaskan grit.
Serving between 1,200 to 1,500 Wasilla-area seniors annually, morning exercise classes had just kicked off at Wasilla Area Seniors, Inc. (WASI), said WASI Executive Director Chuck Foster. As per the emergency procedures, WASI staff instructed seniors on what to do during the quake: take cover. While WASI’s fitness center doesn’t include desks or beds to hide under, 12 participants in the Strong Senior class knew what to do when disaster struck.
“If you can’t grab onto anything during an earthquake, grab onto each other,” said Foster. “That’s exactly what the folks in the fitness center did. They supported each other and made it outside to the parking lot quickly after the earthquake stopped, which was good because earthquakes don’t kill people. Buildings do.”
Foster also advises that those caught in fitness centers should stay away from heavy exercise equipment in case it falls over.
“You don’t want to be on the treadmill,” he added.
Seniors at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center (ASAC) were alarmed when the power cut off, said Rebecca Parker, General Manager of ASAC. With around 2,000 members, ASAC services around 300 to 400 people daily.
“The generator kicked in immediately, and we were able to have TV and knew what was going on across the community,” Parker said. “We closed the center after that so people could go home and check on their families.”
After the initial shock of the quake, building inspectors were called in to assess the damages.
“ASAC is extremely well built,” Parker said. “A few tiles fell from the ceiling. We got the OK right away after inspection. We’re very fortunate to have such a solid building.”
ASAC was able to hold their annual Holiday Noel Bazaar the next morning, hosting 300 to 400 people for breakfast, lunch and lots of holiday shopping, Parker said.
Mat-Su Senior Services (MSSS) in Palmer reported similar good news. MSSS’s housing buildings date back to the late 90s, while the main center was built in 2011.
“All our facilities passed with flying colors,” said MSSS Interim Executive Director Fred Traber. “The inspectors were giving compliments to the builders.”
While also located in the Mat-Su Valley, WASI faced problems post-earthquake.
“Maintenance zipped over right away and repaired broken water pipes, but we couldn’t serve lunch after because there was no electricity,” Foster said. “We couldn’t deliver for Meals on Wheels either, which was significant because the quake happened on a Friday, which means the drivers also bring recipients frozen meals for Saturday and Sunday.”
Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center (CERSC) was among the least fortunate of the centers, suffering many structural damages.
“We lost power the day of the earthquake, and two sprinkler heads came off, so we had much flooding,” reported CERSC Executive Director Linda Hendrickson. “Our assisted living residents were evacuated immediately.”
Other forms of destruction included a damaged boiler, uneven flooring and an adult day services building with an off-center beam and cracks in the ceiling that prohibited use until fixed.
Despite the bleak outcome of the quake, CERSC was still prepared.
“Our disaster plan worked seamlessly, even in the chaos,” Hendrickson said. “It’s extensive, covering every scenario that we could think of, and we had go-bags prepared for each resident. With every event, you always learn what you can change up. Adding an extra blanket to the go-bags would be a good idea. For one funny one, always remember dentures when you are grabbing items to take with you during an evacuation!”
Other centers in the area also chalked up the success of the quake to stellar emergency preparedness.
“We have quarterly staff meetings where someone from the state or the municipality comes to speak about safety,” said Anchorage’s Parker. “We’ve had earthquake training and will continue to do so on an annual basis.”
“We didn’t have to face it, but restricted mobility is a big issue during an earthquake,” added Foster. “Some can run under desks, but a fair number cannot. It’s not safe to be in a wheelchair during an earthquake, but once you sense it, you’re in it.”
If you happen to be seated in a wheelchair during an earthquake, Foster advises setting the brakes if they aren’t already set and crouching in the chair, doubled over with your arms holding onto the chair’s armrests.
Other centers hope to learn from the quake going forward.
“Like anyone else, we will be reviewing emergency plans, doing emergency drills and having the building inspected, all the things a wakeup call gives you,” said Traber.
“The timing of the earthquake was significant,” remarked Foster. “What if it was at a different time of day? How would we clear the dining room with a large group of people rushing for the exit? The danger would be everyone running at the same time.”
As a more immediate safety update, WASI will also be stocking up on bottled water and non-frozen shelf food for the 289 seniors served by WASI’s Meals on Wheels program.
“We didn’t plan for a disruption with the wells and drinking water,” added Foster. “It got us thinking, what if there was a longer electrical outage? Freezer meals wouldn’t last, so having shelf food would be wonderful.”
Despite the chaos and distress caused by the earthquake many were comforted by checking-in on others.
“The director of Health and Human Services from the Municipality of Anchorage called to check-in on the seniors and ask if we needed anything,” said Parker. “It was nice to receive the call from the top.”
WASI received a visit from the Wasilla Police Department post-quake.
“It was an indication that the world wasn’t falling apart, and everything was going to be alright,” said Foster. “It was a small act that was very significant to the seniors.”