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Dedicated GSA Team Remembers Anchorage Earthquake Response

Photo montage of impact of Anchorage Alaska earthquake to GSA facilities
At top left, GSA's Glen Graham looks over a room right after the Nov. 30 earthquake hit Anchorage. Top right, a window at a federal office in Anchorage is in pieces after the quake struck. Bottom left, Ceiling tiles lay on the floor in one of many federal offices throughout Anchorage. Bottom right, GSA's Tom Deakins works to secure fallen ceiling tiles in a federal office in Anchorage.

On the morning of November 30, 2018 just like millions of other workers, GSA’s Tom Deakins started his work day by going through some emails. Then, the desk began to shake.

Then, it began to shake A LOT!

For many of us, the ground moving underneath would be unsettling, maybe even terrifying. For residents of Anchorage, Alaska, this was just - Friday.

But this time, the shaking continued and grew more intense. Deakins and the residents of Anchorage Alaska, were experiencing one of the most significant earthquakes in recent memory.

Pull Quote Tom Deakins

Lasting several seconds, the 7.1 magnitude earthquake shook residents, crumbled roads, and caused extensive damage to buildings and other infrastructure around the Anchorage area. A few moments passed, then came the aftershocks.

“The next one that hit seemed worse and that’s probably what did the most damage,” said Deakins who is the GSA Northwest/Arctic Region Field Office Manager for the Alaska Field Office in Anchorage. “We just sheltered in place, under our desks until it passed.” He was located in the James M. Fitzgerald U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building. Commonly known as the Anchorage Federal Building.

But it didn’t pass right away. The ground continued to shake and roll dozens of times (7,800 to date) as aftershocks hit the area for weeks after, creating quite a challenge for Deakins and his GSA team.

In spite of repeated aftershocks, the GSA team stood ready to help. Once they believed they could safely assess the damage in the Anchorage Federal Building, things got worse. Someone from one of the federal agencies in the building pulled the fire alarm, sending occupants streaming outside.

“If those front doors shut behind them, they can’t get back in. It was cold out and we were concerned that with the aftershocks sheltering in place was the safest,” Deakins added.

The team brought workers back inside to safe locations, fearing another trembler could do additional damage. And it did, causing heat and power to go out in the building. Now alarms blared and emergency lights turned on creating an even more chaotic scene.

Additional aftershocks caused ceiling tiles to come down, pictures were knocked off the walls, and bookcases tipped over throughout the building.

The building assessments began as teams searched offices, checked elevators, and initiated the Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), which included accounting for all GSA staff.  Everyone was ok, but there was extensive damage. Deakins also had another issue - how to manage staff and their personal needs to check on their families and assess home damage.

“You’re focusing on who needs to deal with personal stuff and who can focus on our buildings,” Deakins said.

Dave Vogel, facilities manager for the Anchorage Federal Building, was home on a day off when the quake hit, having just returned from a family vacation. He made sure his three children were safe, then headed downtown to see what work he could do in the federal buildings.

Chris Carter, lease administration manager, also the father of three children, was at the office when the earthquake struck. On the phone with tenants in GSA leased buildings and the three separate schools where his children were, made for a crazy morning. But Chris managed it all.

With more than 60 federal leases in 35 buildings throughout Anchorage, Carter received a flood of emails and phone calls. 

As Carter worked through those calls to ensure the safety of GSA’s federal partners’ employees and take in damage reports, the Northwest/Arctic Region headquarters in Auburn  immediately  prepared staff for travel up to Anchorage and assist with damage assessments.

Meanwhile, back in Anchorage, Deakins’ team assembled to begin a more in-depth assessment of the buildings and started work to restore heat and water to the building. Across town, the much older Anchorage Historic Federal Building also suffered from the earthquakes, but it held up even better than it’s newer, more modern counterpart. Still, the team had plenty to do to get it back up and operational.

Pull Quote Glen Graham

Glen Graham, operations manager for the Anchorage Historic Federal Building had his hands full with a building that was structurally sound, but had some internal issues.

“We’d just get some pipes fixed, then another shaker would hit and we’d have another dozen pipes to fix,” Graham said.

He and his team would chase the pipe repairs for a couple of days as Anchorage continued to suffer from very strong aftershocks. The other GSA teams continued damage assessments and worked on getting the buildings back open. Within five days, both the Anchorage Federal Building and Anchorage Historic Federal building would be back open to federal employees.

As the crews worked, there was still the worry another big one would hit.

“The whole community was on edge,” Carter said. “You’re just waiting for the next one. You definitely get a little jumpy.”

GSA let each agency decide whether or not to open to the public. Most didn’t since there was lots of cleanup throughout the federal buildings and GSA leased spaces. Many GSA staff who responded didn’t get to see their own homes in the daylight until the next week, because of  the 15-hour workdays.

“You just go into autopilot,” added Graham. “The training we get to manage these crises really pays off.”

Deakins echoed those sentiments that the emergency disaster training teaches GSA staff to follow certain protocols and procedures to help ensure tenant safety and the structural integrity of the buildings. The resilience of the GSA staff, federal partners’ employees, and the Anchorage residents got everyone through this traumatic experience with a lot of hard work.

“The hardest I’ve ever worked was when I was deployed in Bosnia with the Army. This experience was a close second,” Deakins said.

The results are some happy clients. After several long days working on repairs, Deakins was summoned to the Federal District Court Judge’s chambers one afternoon. Once there, the judge and his team heaped praise on Deakins for the GSA team’s tireless work to get the buildings safe and open for business. The judge even threw a pizza party for the staff.

Pull Quote Ted Murphy

Ted Murphy, the acting state director for the Bureau of Land Management wrote Deakins and his team to say thanks.

“From the moment the earthquake struck to the challenging aftermath, you and your team worked tirelessly to ensure the tenants and the public could safely and quickly return to a normal routine at the federal building,” Murphy wrote. “This was clearly a result of your leadership and dedication and professionalism of Glen Graham and David Vogel.

Now, nearly six months later there are still a few reminders of that November day. A crack here, a missing ceiling tile there, but all cosmetic. With each event like this, Deakins and his team learn something and take that experience and knowledge into the next event.

Graham added: “With each of these, we get better at managing situations like this. And it’s a reminder of how important your COOP training is.”

Here’s hoping the GSA Anchorage team doesn’t have to test their knowledge about how to manage earthquake responses any time soon. But when it happens again, this team will be ready.