A message from Heidi Tremayne, EERI Executive Director

Heidi Tremayne (M.EERI,2004)

I just returned from the Anchorage Earthquake Symposium in Alaska that EERI planned and hosted alongside the Alaska Earthquake Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, with critical support from NSF, USGS, NIST, and FEMA. I was impressed by the breadth and diversity of the attendees — seismologists, geologists, geotechnical engineers, structural engineers, emergency managers, facilities managers, and planners. As you can guess, we had many rich conversations, peppered with regular requests to define acronyms and jargon so common in each field to ensure comprehension by the broader audience.

The three-day meeting highlighted findings from ground motion recordings, structural and nonstructural performance, port and lifeline performance, and response and recovery efforts, including a field tour of impacted sites. We learned that peak ground accelerations in most cases were less than 0.3g, with engineering studies now showing that shaking was often less than the design basis earthquake. As a result, the damage was mostly limited to areas without code enforcement or on sites with poor soil conditions that were ineffectively mitigated or identified prior to construction. We learned that reactivation of former ground failures from the 1964 earthquake, fortunately, did not occur, likely due to the limited duration of the shaking.

This earthquake, like many before, certainly puts into context the importance of what we all do. Beyond technical learning, we were also reminded of the personal and emotional toll of earthquakes. A short video, shared by Anchorage Municipal Manager Bill Falsey, who led the response and recovery for Anchorage, compiled recordings from the 911 call center immediately after the M7.1 earthquake. We heard the voices of terrified residents shaken in the dark, cold early winter morning, many of whom were scared and alone, seeking assurance from the brave call operators, who continued to field calls despite their own uncertainty.

Even with limited impact on the built environment, the Anchorage community is still grappling with various challenges and struggling to afford the necessary repairs. On our field tour, we saw homes still unusable a year later due to ground failures that induced structural damage, and damage to the aging wharf piles at the critical regional port that were only revealed after the spring thaw. Local residents and officials are still dealing with the financial complexities of recovery.

My main takeaway from the event is that we need to continue working together across our professional disciplines to both solve and prevent these problems. To this aim, we need to advocate for each other to:

  • Grow the budgets and resources of local emergency managers and mitigation planners, who are the critical last step in effectively deploying our technical knowledge,
  • Ensure that the appropriate disciplines are called upon in the development of projects, such as geotechnical engineers to ensure proper site studies and soil preparation,
  • Demonstrate the importance of code adoption and enforcement to policymakers, and encourage transparency to the public when this does not exist.
  • Support the retrofit and replacement of seismically vulnerable buildings in our communities,
  • Respond with the impressive spirit and collaboration of the professionals and citizens of Anchorage, when the next earthquake comes.

I look forward to sharing many more lessons gained from this symposium at the 2020 National Earthquake Conference. Through EERI we can come together to connect with each other, learn from each other, and advocate for each other. I see this as a critical step towards earthquake risk reduction, and I hope you do too.