Near the epicenter: Austin couple recalls experience in Alaska earthquake

Published 11:50 am Saturday, December 8, 2018

Tom and Shellie Wuertz of Austin had not seen their daughter, son-in-law and grandson for a while.

In September, their daughter and son-in-law’s family moved to the Knik area of Alaska, located in a wooded area about 7-8 minutes south of Wasilla, which is about 40 miles northeast of Anchorage. Their daughter Megan is pregnant and, since they had not visited them, Tom and Shellie booked a flight to Alaska, arriving on Thursday, Nov. 29.

The morning of Friday, Nov. 30, started off normally. Tom and Shellie were up; Tom downstairs sitting on the couch with his morning coffee and Shellie upstairs with their grandson. Despite it being after 8 a.m., it was still dark outside. Shellie sent a picture to a friend at 8:23 a.m. to show how dark it was.

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At 8:29 a.m., a low rumble was heard as a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, the epicenter just 5-10 miles from their daughter’s house, began to shake the home.

The contents of a kitchen at home owned by Dave Stacy north of Eagle Lake, Alaska on Mirror Lake, brother Austin’s Susan Downey, are scattered about after the 7.0 earthquake that struck earlier this month. Photo provided

“There was no warning at all,” Shellie recalled. “The floor just started grumbling and you felt it under your feet. The whole house started shaking. It was crazy.”

“At first, you’re thinking, ‘Okay, that’s weird,’” Tom said. “A few seconds later, you’re thinking, ‘Alright, I think that might be an earthquake.’ Then things start to vibrate and the walls of the house start to creak and the windows start to rattle and dishes and things on the shelves start to vibrate and shake. It gets to be kind of loud with all of the stuff in the house and a few crashes and bangs here and then because you have cupboards and drawers opening and closing.”

As the house shook, Tom attempted to make his way upstairs.

“Everybody was upstairs and I had the feeling like if this is it, I don’t want to die down here alone,” he said. “I got up from the couch and I grabbed my coffee and was going upstairs, but the stairs were moving. I got slammed into the wall and fell. I eventually made it up when the shaking stopped and my daughter was in the hallway wondering where her son was and Shellie yelled from the bedroom that they were okay.”

The earthquake lasted a little less than one minute, with about 30 seconds of severe shaking. But it wasn’t over yet, as a second earthquake measuring 5.7 on the Richter scale struck shortly thereafter, followed by an aftershock measuring in the high 4.0 range.

Fortunately, the house did not suffer much damage, with only a few coffee mugs and a vase broken.

“Their landlord came over an hour after the earthquake and told my son-in-law, ‘You were probably in one of the safest places you could be,’” Shellie said. “It was a new construction and everything was up to code. That’s probably why they didn’t have any damage. My daughter saw pictures afterwards of people that don’t live very far from them and their cupboards had flown open, their dishes were in the middle of the kitchen floor. They didn’t have any of that. The landlord said other older homes in town didn’t fair so well.”

“They have to build (homes) a certain way to withstand earthquakes, so that saved lives and saved a lot of property damage,” Tom added.

Despite the house not sustaining damage, the power was knocked out, which shut off the well on the property and the septic tank. It wasn’t until power was restored a few hours later that they got an idea of the extent of the damage.

“The bulk of what we saw was after the electricity came back on about 5 hours later and we were able to get on the Wi-Fi again and we were able to see what people posted on social media,” Tom said.

They also saw damage when they went to Three Bears, a nearby store Shellie compared to Costco.

They were open, but they had the corner of the store where all of their sporting goods were and the shelves had collapsed,” Shellie said. “They had a liquor store next to that and all of the shelves had fallen. It was a mess and they had the section barricaded off so customers could go in.”

“They were selling lots of water,“ Tom added.

The Wuertz’s were able to return to Minnesota with their daughter on Sunday, but for the remainder of their time in Alaska, aftershocks continued to be felt. Some of them measured over 4.0 on the Richter scale.

“(The aftershocks) really made the people on edge,” Tom said. “Alaska gets a lot of earthquakes, but the natives were rattled by the intensity of the first one and all of the aftershocks. They haven’t had an earthquake like this since 1964. For many people, this was the most severe earthquake they’ve been in.”

“None of us were really sleeping,” Shellie said. “Friday night, when we were going to bed, another 5.3 aftershock came through while we were upstairs. I sat down and thought, ‘I’m so done with this.’ Your adrenaline is flowing when it happens and once that wears off, you’re wobbly. When an aftershock comes, you can feel it and you get tired of it.”

“You wonder if this is going to be the next big one,” Tom added. “Everybody was nervous.”

Despite the area still continuing to get aftershocks, with many more expected over the next couple of months, the Wuertz’s have heard that things are returning to normal in Alaska.

“People were kind of frazzled and jumpy about what had went on, but they tended to go on with their normal lives for the most part,” Tom said. “Alaskans are pretty resilient people from what I could see.”