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Alaska Earthquake Startles Many, Injures None

On November 30, the coastal city of Anchorage, Alaska experienced the largest earthquake the city had seen since the 1964 good Friday quake. At roughly 8:30 in the morning, as residents were finishing breakfast or arriving at school and workplaces, a magnitude 7.2 quake struck the city with no warning. [1] The tremor knocked over furniture and sent items flying off shelves. Viral videos quickly made the rounds, showing schoolchildren cowering under desks, cars bouncing down driveways, and parents grabbing their children’s hands and fleeing their houses. [2] A particularly memorable image showed a collapsed highway exit near the airport with a would-be traveler’s car left stranded on an island of pavement. [3] To outsiders looking in, the situation appeared dire.

Indeed, area hospitals braced for the onslaught from the quake in what they assumed would be a mass casualty event; however, the morbid predictions never materialized. A few people experienced minor injuries fleeing their homes, but there were no major injuries, and no casualties at all, as a result of the earthquake. [4]

How can this be? Many of us who have seen news coverage of earthquakes elsewhere in the world see a number like 7.2 and associate this with inevitable injuries and deaths. With a quake this big, furniture can fall and houses can collapse. Freeway infrastructure can fail, crushing vehicles and commuters. On top of that, a quake this size near the coast can sometimes result in a tsunami event, which threatens lives even after the earthquake has subsided.

The answer lies in modern building codes that have been in place for decades as a response to the 1964 earthquake that devastated the area. The state of Alaska now uses the International Building Code, which is highly effective in terms of seismic safety. Structural elements of buildings are specially designed to resist shaking, and buildings are designed to resist ground motion. Walls are built with reinforced concrete, and pipes and wires are free to move, which makes them less likely to break during a quake. [5]

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), there are deadly quakes each year, with total casualties ranging from several hundred, to tens of thousands. There were an estimated 689 earthquake-related deaths worldwide in 2012, but over 200,000 in 2010 (largely as a result of the deadly quake in Haiti). There have been no earthquake-related deaths in the US since 2003, and the last mass-casualty event was the 1994 “Northridge” quake in Los Angeles, which resulted in some 60 deaths. Alaska experiences the most earthquakes of any U.S. state, with 1,575 earthquakes in 2015, compared to just 130 quakes in California and 172 in Nevada. [6]

Because Nevada is a state that experiences a significant number of earthquakes each year, it is common for Nevadans to prepare earthquake kits and to practice what to do during an earthquake. This year, on October 18 at 10:18 a.m., schools, organizations, and families participated in the 2018 Great Nevada ShakeOut. Participating groups registered at and received a manual detailing how to respond appropriately during an earthquake. There were different guides depending on whether the group participating was a school, business, family, governmental organization, etc. [7]

For many who live in earthquake-prone regions, it is common to practice ducking under a desk or standing in a doorway during a quake. However, the best way to guarantee safety during a quake is to be in a building that has been properly constructed to withstand the shaking. The startling number of earthquake deaths worldwide is largely due to poorly-constructed buildings collapsing on inhabitants. Good building saved countless Alaskans this week, and the marvels of modern engineering will hopefully prevent injuries among Nevadans the next time a big one hits the Silver State.








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