Debt, anxiety and confusion: A year later, some Anchorage earthquake victims are still recovering

By November 30, 2019 December 3rd, 2019 Economy, Southcentral
A broken window gets swept up after the Nov. 30, 2018, earthquake in Anchorage.

A broken window gets swept up after the Nov. 30, 2018, earthquake in Anchorage. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

It’s been a year since a 7.1 magnitude earthquake shook Southcentral Alaska, destroying roads, damaging homes and public buildings.

But you wouldn’t know that looking around the cluttered first floor of Leslie Dickson’s west Anchorage home.

“These are just tools and Costco food,” Dickson said of a large pile. “Water, whatever you normally put in your garage. Propane tank.”

Dickson recently had to move the entire contents of her garage here so that workers could tear out the cracked cement floor. With just a few hours’ notice, she had shuffled all her camping gear, shelving, the washer, the dryer and a mini-fridge out into her living room and kitchen.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, there was a measure of relief that such a powerful event didn’t result in any deaths. But a year later, while most of Anchorage has patched its cracks and moved on, some residents are still sorting through the quake’s consequences.

In spite of the ongoing repairs and inconveniences, Dickson said this situation beats staying in a hotel, which she had to do for weeks after her duplex was massively damaged by last year’s quake.

“It just seemed like the house was falling apart. And then for every aftershock, the house would move,” she said. “I was on the couch with my tennis shoes on, sleeping with a flashlight.”

Leslie Dickson sits in her kitchen next to a pile of supplies she had to move out of her garage on short notice to accommodate repairs scheduled last minute. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

The earthquake took a big toll on Dickson and her neighbors, whose slice of west Anchorage was one of the areas most affected. Several of the homes bump up against a section of marshy wetland and experienced ground failure. There are still houses with outward signs of damage.

Plenty of people in Anchorage came out of the earthquake with relatively little property loss: broken plates, cracked drywall, shattered pictures and possessions that could ultimately be replaced. But as of this week, 4,339 Alaskans had damage bad enough that they were approved approved for aid under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Individual Assistance Program.

A portion of them are people like Dickson, who have spent the last year coping with extreme damage, taking drastic financial measures to keep their homes.

“It’s been a terrible year,” Dickson said. “I’d heard about anxiety. I’m not sure I’d ever experienced it before this year.”

The damage was so bad, and the cost to repair so high, that she did the same math a lot of residents in a similar position were doing after the quake.

“I looked at every option, just to see if I should foreclose, walk away, what’s the cost of demolition,” Dickson said. “At the end of the day, the best option was just to fix it.”

Dickson owns both units of a duplex, living on one side and renting out the other. The whole structure had to be lifted at a cost of around $100,000. To pay for that work, she navigated a patchwork of different federal and local assistance programs, including an IRS exemption, a property tax reassessment, federal disaster loans and FEMA aid. By her estimate, she spent about 15 hours a week just managing all the different, convoluted processes for several months.

The programs are essential for her to be able to repair her property. Dickson got a little more than $34,000 from FEMA in direct assistance, which is just about the maximum available to individuals. But in order to get that money, she ultimately had to appeal twice. Even still, she took on a large amount of new debt through low-interest federal loans made available by the Small Business Administration.

So far, Dickson estimates all her repair costs will total about $140,000.

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According to Jeremy Zidek, spokesperson for the state of Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, more than $130 million in federal aid has reached Alaska in connection with the Nov. 30 earthquake. The majority of that money, $84.6 million, is low-interest loans that have to be paid back.

“There was a subset of our population for whom the natural disaster turned into a kind of financial disaster,” said Anchorage Municipal Manager Bill Falsey. “We are still going to be feeling our way through that as the FEMA checks dry up and folks may still be in a bad way.”

It’s not just residential property owners that are still fixing damage from the last year. Public buildings and infrastructure are still being assessed, too.

“We have a few facilities that remain pretty crippled,” Falsey said.

In the hours and days following the quake, the city rushed to fix destroyed roads and busted water lines. For all that work during a federal disaster, the municipality gets to send the U.S. government the bill.

“We have submitted to FEMA reimbursement requests for about $40 million,” Falsey said.

That number doesn’t include all the repair work that’s needed at Anchorage School District buildings, which bear a much higher price tag. ASD estimates it needs $151,246,916 to fix all the earthquake-related damage. Some of the most severely affected facilities are in Eagle River, where two schools have been closed all year, causing a logistical nightmare shuffling elementary and middle school students up and down the highway.

Zidek said the current estimate that $270 million to $300 million in federal recovery dollars will flow into Alaska over the next several years. What’s been paid out so far, he said, is “just the tip of the iceberg.”

The Minnesota Drive airport off-ramp buckled by an earthquake in Anchorage, Nov. 30, 2018. (Photo by Nat Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The quake also had a psychological impact on Southcentral communities that is harder to quantify.

Falsey grew up in Anchorage, but he wasn’t alive when the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake destroyed whole towns and caused 131 deaths. Though he’d lived through plenty of small quakes, last year’s gave him a different perspective on them.

“In particular, I think of the aftershocks. As a guy who went to high school here, I always thought of 1964 as one big earthquake. But now, having lived through the 7.1, I think we all understand more viscerally that it is a weeklong and months-long event,” he said.

Though the federal disaster process will take years to fully play out, Falsey hopes the bulk of the work will be wrapped up in the coming year.

Leslie Dickson believes she is exceptionally well prepared to navigate the complicated world of disaster aid. As a lawyer trained in writing and researching, she knew how to deal with officials, write up claims, and appeal when she thought she’d been wrongly denied. That is hardly the norm. She’s part of some Facebook groups where people swap their own earthquake horror stories and rebuilding advice. There, Dickson sees much more tragic examples. Like a retiree draining her 401(k) to stay in her home.

“Another woman had said she’d given up health insurance for her family to pay for the repairs,” Dickson said.

Even though it’s meant huge amounts of new debt, anxiety and a never-ending list of repairs, Dickson said she feels grateful she’s able to keep her home. She counts herself as one of the lucky ones.

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