Notes from ground zero in Eagle River

Friday, NOV 30, 2018 at 8:29 AM–I am lying in bed, awake, in my apartment in Eagle River. I moved into the building 4 years ago, when it was new. It is a beautiful apartment, spacious, with huge windows, views of the mountains all around, designed to provide top quality housing for people over 55, with all races and income levels represented.

            The shaking comes out of nowhere. It’s a fast hard shaking, maybe the way salt feels in a saltshaker. It’s terrifying. And it gets wilder and wilder. We have minor quakes all the time in Alaska but this is THE BIG ONE. The building is creaking, swaying, grinding. There is no way to describe the shock and fear a person feels when the earth shakes and keeps shaking. It is a very intense brush with death.

            I would say the first quake shook for about one minute.* I headed for the bathroom. Had to walk over hundreds of shards of glass and chunks of china.  My feet left bloody footprints in the bathroom, but were unhurt. Then the second quake hit. It knocked me off my feet. That shock knocked over refrigerators in several apartments.

            Friday, NOV 30—Within 20-30 minutes, residents were checking on the safety of others. One woman trapped under a dresser was calling for help. Nobody had a passkey. Residents got the trapped woman out. Her granddaughter drove in and took her to the hospital. Later she called to ask if she could stay with me for a while. I made up the bed.

            Everyone in the building was asking everyone else, are you okay?  There was no hysteria, some crying. A woman who survived the ’64 earthquake went into shock. Office manager and others checked every apartment. Some residents took off in their own cars or were picked up by relatives. Some people began the four-hour job of cleaning up a trashed kitchen floor: broken glass, unbelievable amounts, a million shards, and broken china, spoiled food all over.

Basically, everything on shelves and counters in every room was slammed to the floor. Most furniture was okay. There were no serious injuries to anyone.

            No power, water or heat for 9 hours but mobile phones worked fine after the earthquake. Calls and texts to and from. Happy to be alive. Power restored for supper. Water, elevator and heat repaired ASAP.

             Saturday, DEC 1—Volunteers began knocking on doors. One of the residents put out a call on Facebook, and by 10 AM, local men, women and children began appearing in the building, offering to help. First volunteers at my door: a beautiful family, husband, wife and two cute little girls. I took them upstairs to the trashed apartment of my new houseguest. The father’s reaction: Holy S—! They cleaned for hours.

            Second volunteers: Mother and daughter Girl Scouts, complete with cleaning supplies and garbage bags. I took them upstairs as well. Third volunteer: a young woman from Americorp who listened to me and my house guest vent.

            Sunday, DEC 2—Pastor sends email. One short service, family friendly, no Sunday School. I will stay home.

            Monday, DEC 3—Dealing with shock, anxiety, fear. Residents talking in the hallways and the Community Room. Several women slept on the floor in the Community Room on Friday night—afraid to go back into their apartments. Is the building safe? Reports of problems. Cars are ordered out of the underground garage because of a water leak.

            Everybody is cleaning up glass and smashed china, broken pictures and family treasures, and spoiled food. We put heavy black garbage bags full of debris out in the hallways. Rows of bags line the hallways. Very distressing to see. And suddenly the garbage bags are gone. Was it volunteers again?

            Tuesday, DEC 4—Noticing poor response from building management.

No one has seen any kind of inspection. Maintenance men looking at hardest hit apartments. Two are home for residents over age 80, both of whom can walk a little but use wheelchairs most of the time. There are residents on oxygen, in wheelchairs, and using walkers, on every floor. Management seems unconcerned.

            Wednesday, DEC 5–The aftershocks, or tremors, or new earthquakes happen every day, making everyone anxious. This is the worst earthquake since 1964. Schools are closed for the week, a few for the rest of the year. There could be another big quake. Meanwhile, the Geological Institute in Fairbanks counts hundreds of “tremors†every day and says they could go on for a year or so.

            National news is reporting that roads are repaired already. Exaggeration. A road that fell into a sinkhole was rebuilt, only to sink again. Most of the damage is to the interiors of buildings. Stores are hit hard. No one has earthquake insurance because it is insanely expensive.

            People are considering options. I’m thinking about just driving down to the airport and flying out of here. I could do it. Some other residents have places to go and the money to fly out. Others could be relocated if necessary.

            So what should I do? What should anyone do after the earth shakes under your feet and you face imminent death? Run away? Seek protection? File a claim with FEMA?

            My answer is that I should do whatever I do best. I have been a lawyer for 33 years and that is what I do best. People in the building are scared and I should do what I can to get answers for them. Is the building safe? Who says so? Why hasn’t management sent out engineers to inspect the structure and the interior? There are cracks in the sheetrock everywhere. We’re talking 56 apartments of old people here.

            I call the lawyer for the organization. She says that a team of inspectors went out and inspected all their buildings on Friday afternoon. This is an obvious misrepresentation/lie as she states that they have 60 buildings. I realize that this lawyer cannot be expected to know how to proceed—nobody knows. I’ve had time to think about it regarding this one building. I tell her that she needs to have a report of the inspection by an independent professional engineer. Not just a “professional,†but an engineer with the credential P.E. She wants to know the residents’ specific concerns. The office manager sends my list.

            Thursday, DEC 6—More volunteers coming in from schools: one group of boys led by their ROTC teacher; Boy Scouts. Totally heartwarming.  Children being taught how to help in a disaster.

            Friday, DEC 7—Open mike at Writer’s Block Bookstore and Café. This event was announced on the news, inviting everyone to come by and tell their earthquake stories. Wouldn’t have missed it. Most in the audience were teachers in Anchorage. Their students were in school when the earthquake hit. Everyone had been trained to duck, cover and hold, and students did duck under desks and tables. Teachers had to duck under tables too, as some younger students screamed and wailed, and ceiling tiles fell on desks and tables. After the quakes stopped shaking, teachers were responsible for their students until parents picked them up. Classes gathered around their teachers out in the parking lots. One junior high teacher said that this was the first time all her students actually showed up where they were supposed to be.

            I spoke about what happened in Eagle River, and handed out lots of cards to promote my new book, DON’T LEAVE TOWN.

            Meanwhile a memo appeared on all the apartment doors, responding to residents’ concerns about inspection and repairs to the building. It was not what I’d asked for, but good enough.

            Sunday, DEC 9—Teach 3-4 year olds at church. 8 children and not one seems at all traumatized. [The following Sunday all of the children had stories.]

             Monday, DEC 10—Appointment with client set for 10:30. Heading out, walked into a total PTSD breakdown. My neighbor down the hall has gone psycho; he is shouting, threatening, out of control, scary, calling for the police, melting down, all at once, with several residents trying to talk/listen to him. It was awful to see a man so overwhelmed with horrifying emotions that he could not control himself at all. I was able to help a little. Eventually he was somewhat calmed down, assisted by Red Cross staff. Later, the whole panoply: police officers, EMT’s, Red Cross staff and Salvation Army people appeared and began doing what they do.

            The Red Cross brought dishes and food to the Community Room. All the residents lost their dishes. I dug through a box of mugs, looking for one that I could keep as a souvenir of the earthquake. Found one.

            The Food Bank delivered canned goods, bananas, donuts, guavas and potatoes. Some of the potatoes were just about frozen but most were okay.

            Tuesday, DEC 11—Flat on my back, wiped out. No desire to do anything. Finally, late, I finish writing EARTHQUAKE.

Date:  December 12, 2018

Vivian Munson, Esq.

[email protected]

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Vivian Munson